Saturday, December 31, 2011

Want less government? Take more responsibility!

Has it ever occurred to you just how interdependent we are? To a degree so surprising we seldom if ever consider it, our well-being and that of those we love depends more often than we’d like to think on the willingness of complete strangers to take personal responsibility for their own behavior.

Think about it. How many times each day do you assume others, usually complete strangers, will act responsibly? As you watch your child head off to school in the morning, you subconsciously assume that teachers and school officials will interfere with bullying, that school ground equipment will be safe and maintained, that bus drivers are safe drivers and that other drivers will stop behind the school bus as children disembark.

When your teenagers go out with friends at night, you assume other parents are not providing them with alcohol and that an adult clerk at a local liquor store is not selling it to them.

As you and your family drive home after an evening of fun, you assume the oncoming cars will not veer into your lane, and that drivers who are neither impaired nor distracted operate them.  You likely assume that if you make a mistake in your driving, that another driver will not fly into a rage, threaten and chase you or worse, If others drive your children home, you assume they are safe drivers, that they require your children and theirs to fasten seat belts.

Perhaps you used to assume parents didn’t provide loaded guns to their teenagers to carry for “protection” from bad guys despite laws against doing so and without assuring the child had proper firearm safety training.

For the most part, you would be safe in making any one or all of these assumptions. And still, any one of those or countless other assumptions we make everyday about the behavior of others prove at times to be hazardous to our lives and the lives of those we love.

Of course part of the answer to this is for all of us to be more aware, make fewer assumptions, take fewer chances. But there is something bigger going on here and it is the growing trend to decouple rights and responsibilities. There seems to be less and less of a recognition that we do have a shared responsibility to one another.  The choices I make impact people I don’t know and may never meet.

It is a mantra we hear everyday in political discourse. Candidates pepper their speeches with talk about government interference in our lives but they never venture into the swamp of asking voters to take personal responsibility.

It is expected of all who live in a free society that we vocally demand and adamantly protect our rights. But who is as adamant and vocal about taking responsibility? Our rights are fully spelled out in a Constitution we revere. But the Constitution is rather silent on personal responsibilities. The framers of the document seem to have made an assumption of their own. They assumed the American people would discipline themselves, manage their own lives and that, as a result, the role of the government could be limited. 

When you think about it, isn’t it rather bizarre that a free society has to have laws that say you cannot drive a car while you are intoxicated, that you cannot sell alcohol to those too young to drink it, that you can’t provide loaded firearms to teenagers, that you must stop for children unloading from a school bus? The list of those laws that should have been rendered unnecessary by responsible citizens would fill volumes…and in fact they do.

Perhaps there would be less government in our lives if we each accepted personal responsibility for how we lived them.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Jesus would be just fine being greeted with “happy holidays.”

The death of Christopher Hitchens coming as it did during the Christmas season may be viewed by some as poetic. For me, it is poignant. It’s a reminder of how voices like Hitchens are vital to the well being of the faith. I smile when imagining the proverbial meeting Hitchens is having with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, not because I think he will be getting his comeuppance. I smile because I think Peter may have met his match.

If you read Hitchen’s book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, you’ll know the self-proclaimed atheist had no bone to pick with Jesus of Nazareth. Likewise, if you really read the Bible, you might find Jesus had no bone to pick with Christopher Hitchens either.

To be clear I am not equating Hitchens to Jesus. Neither would appreciate that. But each had something important to say about religious malpractice.

Hitchens’ disdain was reserved for what others had done with Jesus’ words, teaching and memory. Whenever I read Hitchens or listened to him speak, I thought him to be not so much one who did not believe there was a God as one who believed God to have been slandered by the religionists.  Whenever I read the Gospels, I see, in much the same way, the disdain Jesus had for the scriptural literalists of his day.

Their views of religion proved to the people that “God was not great.” God was the weapon used by those with power to keep others in line and on the margins.  Indeed Hitchens and Jesus raised much the same complaints about the self-styled gatekeepers of the faith. “Religion,” wrote Hitchens, “has caused people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eye brow.”

Jesus of Nazareth was speaking about those of his time who used religion in much the same manner that provoked Hitchens.  “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23)

Hitchens once told an audience that the very word “Jesus” says at once too little and too much. Similarly, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” In those few words, both have left us with thoughts worthy of our time. As a 2nd year seminarian, I was once interviewed for an interim pastorship at a Colorado Springs church. An older gentleman on the church board asked the first question. “Are you a liberal or a conservative?” I replied, “When I talk about loving Jesus, they think I am a conservative. But when I repeat the words of Jesus, they think I am a liberal.” I didn’t get the job.

There is something prophetic in Christopher Hitchens leaving our world at the height of the season when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. Prophetic in the Biblical sense. As the “Pearly Gates” dialogue continues between Hitchens and Peter (and I can see it might take a while) we are left with all of the open- ended question he raised.

It begs the question to simply cry, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Both Hitchens and Jesus take us beyond crude bumper sticker theology. I believe Jesus would not appreciate his birthday being used as a means of dividing his followers from others. He’d have been just fine being greeted with “happy holidays.”

Christopher Hitchens called our beliefs “Christian fantasies.” We unwittingly give weight to his argument when we permit dogmatic slogans to get in the way of our relationships with those whose guesses about the nature of God differ from our own. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Frick and Frack, Wyoming Style

The drinking water in the Pavilion, Wyoming area contains at least 10 of the chemicals used in fracking. That doesn’t surprise anyone living in Pavilion. Their water has been so obviously contaminated by fracking that even an oil company denying its complicity has been providing them fresh drinking water for months.

Knowing that, if you were the governor of all the people wouldn’t you give their health the benefit of the doubt?

But the governor of some of the people, Matt Mead, says the conclusions reached by the Environmental Protection Agency need more study. In other words, the burden of proof is on the people who drink the water and not on the oil and gas companies polluting it.

Louis Meeks lives in the area. He spoke to Abrahm Lustgarten of Propublica last summer. Meeks said his drinking water was once clear and smelled sweet. Today he fills a glass of water from his farm’s tap so you can see the swirling, rainbow colored film floating in the tumbler.

Meeks knows what’s happened and so does the EPA. But the governor of some of the people needs more proof.

As you travel south of Cheyenne to the Colorado border you can see the rise of a Wamsutter like village in Laramie County. There’s a great deal of chamber-of-commerce-like cheerleading about what they call the oil and gas play.  While we welcome the jobs and the economic development, it should heighten your interest in quickly learning more about fracking.

A slang term for hydraulic fracturing, “fracking” refers to injecting chemical-laden fluids into rock formations to force those cracks to get larger. The larger the fissures, the more oil and gas flows out of the formation and into the wellbore, from where it can be extracted. Apparently, the chemicals then flow into underground water supplies.

Oil companies have long claimed the pollution is likely caused by something else. Their interests pit them against the scientific conclusions reached by the EPA. The difference means the governor has to choose sides.

Last week the EPA found chemicals used to fracture rocks in drilling for natural gas in central Wyoming are the likely cause of contaminated local water supplies. “Alternative explanations,” the EPA said, “were carefully considered to explain individual sets of data. However, when considered together with other lines of evidence, the data indicates likely impact to ground water that can be explained by hydraulic fracturing.”

The people of Pavillion have long been able to smell, see and taste the dangerous chemicals in their water. Health officials recommended they not drink their water and go to the extreme of ventilating their bathrooms while showering. The people of Pavilion were not surprised by the EPA study

But the governor of some of the people says the study is “scientifically questionable.” The stock market knows what the people of Pavilion know and on Thursday shares of the nation’s biggest fracker were off 5%. More to follow as those who invest in frackers move their confidence money somewhere safer.

It may be that the EPA is wrong. Oil and gas company scientists may have it right. More study might be necessary. It may be the people of Pavilion can’t rely on their lying eyes and noses. But at the end of the day they have funny smelling water, documented health problems and the conclusions reached by the federal agency established by law to protect them from big oil and gas companies that might not have their interests at heart. It seems counterintuitive that a governor would be willing to put the burden of proof on those people instead of those oil and gas companies.

The governor of some of the people may also be right as well. Perhaps the EPA study is “scientifically inconclusive.” So while he waits for one that is “scientifically conclusive” I wonder if he’s willing to allow his family to drink Pavilion water?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

My New Year Resolution: I will not tolerate intolerance!

Many times I’d like to be a mouse in the corner as a group of really smart people make really stupid decisions. An example was last week when the corporate brains at Lowes decided to pull its advertising from a harmless television program “All-American Muslim.” I’d have enjoyed eavesdropping on the conversation as they justified caving into the Florida Family Association (FFA), a small fringe group whose track record should have eliminated them from Lowe’s consideration.

I shop at Lowes a lot but Lowes can't have it both ways. Lowes can’t sell out to bigots and sell its products to me. As 2011 comes to an end, we have been presented an opportunity to make a New Year’s resolution. In 2012, let’s take a stand against ignorance and bigotry.  People who seek peace on earth and goodwill toward all should shop somewhere other than Lowes.

Lowes stirred this up by pulling their advertising from a reality show on TLC that follows five Muslim families as they live normal lives. It depicts patriotic Americans, who happen to be Muslims, living, working, going to school, celebrating birthdays and weddings. That’s their reality. It’s a reality that offends a group of religious fanatics who want their stereotypes of Muslims to stand alone as the image motivating our relationships with Muslims.

The FFA believes that by depicting Muslims as ordinary Americans, the program “riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.” I have good Muslim friends in this community and know the impact of this sort of hateful talk. Shame, shame on Lowes for being a part of it.

Lowes issued a statement regarding the controversy. “We have a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion, across our workforce and our customers, and we’re proud of that longstanding commitment.”

I have just as strong a commitment to Lowes. I spent (as in the past tense) a lot of time and money in their store. But like Lowes whose “strong commitment to diversity and inclusion” wasn’t strong enough to keep it from shouldering up to bigotry, my commitment to Lowes is not strong enough to allow me to spend another dime in their store until they make this right.

Who are these “Christians” who have Lowe’s ear? The Florida Family Association is, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a virulently anti-gay, anti-diversity group, whose founder David Caton compared Muslims to snakes, saying the show misleads Americans in the same way as any show that reports snakes are good family pets without describing the venomous ones.

There are many problems with this mess. First, the FFA message that convinced Lowes to join the bigotry is a mirror image of the message of Al Qaeda. They use anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic propaganda to recruit support. Al Qaeda and the Florida Family Association each have agendas based on creating hate and division. Each uses a twisted view of their holy books and mangles religious symbols to advance their cause.

Hate is hate whether advocated by Christians or Muslims. And business is business. We can spend our money with those who share our values or those who share the values of the haters.

The other issue is a concern that should be shared by all Americans. The Florida family Association would like to define America and what it means to be an American. Lowes is willing to allow them to do so. The rest of us should not. Our rights, our freedoms are too precious, too fragile to allow fringe groups to have this much power.

How secure is our freedom of religion in a country that denies it to others? How protected is our right to speak freely in a country where organizations like the FFA can succeed in taking it away from others? 

Is it the freedom to stereotype and marginalize others, even Muslims, the cause for which we sent young mean and women to Iraq and Afghanistan to protect?

The Florida Family Association will never understand America and its freedoms but we have a chance to teach Lowes if we take a stand.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Where there is no vision the state perishes

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Proverbs 29:18. True. But, where there is no vision, you can still muddle through…at least for a while. Wyoming is muddling through, squandering the opportunities the state has been given to be bold.

There was a time when the legislature met for 40 days every two years. Some thought they should meet for 2 days every forty years. That proposal was narrowly defeated but may be worth some more thought.

Next year will be the 40th anniversary of the decision Wyoming voters made to call the legislature into session every year. Appalled the state’s budget had for the first time exceeded 100 million dollars, we thought it needed more attention.

In 1972, voters bought the idea that the state’s affairs were so complex the legislature needed one session to deal with general matters and another to focus on the budget. So the voters authorized annual sessions. The odd numbered year for considering passing new laws and repealing old ones, the even number year to focus on the budget.

NOTE TO VOTERS: How’s that working for you? To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “Is the state better off today than it was when we had a 100 million dollar budget? Has a three billion dollar budget made your life better?  Whether it’s 100 million or three billion matters little if there’s no vision. Where there is no vision, the people may not perish but their opportunities in life WILL.

It appears Governor Mead has given real thought to how the state can use its fiscal resources to move forward. His budget proposal includes significant funding for local governments, which Mead correctly calls “the backbone for economic development.” He includes funds for Wyoming roads and highways, which we all agree are in dire, need. The battle will be joined by legislators who want more cuts and who believe that saving for a “rainy day” is preferable to funding a vision for the future. Vision-based budgeting would help them and us recognize when it is raining.

We used to talk about something called “zero-based budgeting,” an approach to fiscal decision-making that begins with an assumption that last biennium’s decisions should be questioned in consideration of changing circumstances and evaluations of performance.

The reality is that is far too demanding and time consuming for a citizen legislature. It would take an extraordinary amount of time and additional staff to sift through every line of the budget. The budget bill, under which agencies currently function, is 171 pages long. The documents you’d have to read in order to understand it would fill several shelves. The time it would take to study and to question every line item does not exist.

As a result we have a “muddling through” budgeting system. The legislature muddles through the budget, spotting usually small items that offend their sensibilities, cutting here and there and adding here and there based mostly on what pressure group gets their attention at a critical moment.

In 1972 it was thought that a budget exceeding 100 million dollars required more legislative attention. Next year’s budget will approach 3.5 billion dollars. It’s time to take a look at creating a “vision-based budget.”

Instead of muddling through, what if state leaders took the time to create a vision. What do we want the state to be a decade from now? Would Wyoming’s future benefit from a world-class infrastructure of modern virtual as well as paved highways? How about early childhood education? Wouldn’t it be a true economic asset to have the best early childhood education system in the nation. What about tourism, public health, a well-qualified and committed work force, public and private?

Perishing may be too strong a word, but without as vision, we will just muddle through and at the end of another decade we will be wondering what happened to all the money that perished.