Saturday, August 31, 2013

Should Democrats save GOP from itself?

My record for political prognostication has been consistent… consistently wrong. I predicted the election of Presidents Birch Bayh, Gary Hart, and Ted Kennedy. I had it right once but five members of the Supreme Court snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory. Failure never stopped me from trying again. So here goes.

I predict the 2014 Republican primary for the Senate will be decided not by Republicans, but by whether or not enough Democrats decide to cross over to vote against Liz Cheney.

Current polls may give Enzi a big lead, but by the time Liz has actually lived in Wyoming long enough to legally purchase a resident fishing license, those numbers will change. What matters now isn’t what Republicans say when asked whether they’d vote for Enzi or Cheney if the election were today.

The reason the race will narrow in coming months can be found in the probing questions Cheney’s pollsters most likely asked. You can bet Dick Cheney’s daughter didn’t decide to run without a strong reason to believe she could win. All you need to know about what pollsters learned that gives Cheney encouragement is that Mike Enzi has joined Tea Partiers like Ted Cruz in threatening to shut down the government if Democrats don’t agree to defund Obamacare, an ideas Enzi’s Republican colleague, Senator Richard Burr (North Carolina) calls “dumb” and the New York Times called “reckless.”

Enzi knows what Liz learned polling Wyoming Republicans. A majority is more interested in doctrinaire, anti-Obama, uncompromising rhetoric than in having an effective senator. They prefer someone who lobs grenades and takes no prisoners to one who might be willing to negotiate a cease-fire. Evidence the comparatively lukewarm reception Enzi received last weekend at Tea Party events.

A divided Republican Party won’t determine the outcome, neither Tea Partiers nor RINOS. Democrats will have to decide whether to save the GOP from itself.

Remember the 2010 GOP primary that nominated Matt Mead? Most Republicans didn’t want him to be their nominee. They wanted someone they perceived as far more conservative. That candidate frightened Democrats who crossed over in droves to vote in the GOP primary for Mead, assuring him the nomination, which was tantamount to winning the general election.

In Natrona County, Democrats did the same for state senator Charlie Scott. They feared the religious-right candidacy of Bob Brechtel and so they crossed over and saved Scott’s bacon.

In both cases, Democrats have been more than a little disappointed. In response to Brechtel’s challenge Charlie became Bob, leading efforts to kill a bill protecting homosexuals from job-related discrimination and stopping the expansion of Medicaid. They got Bob Brechtel’s voting record with Scott’s influence. It was a bad bargain.

The disappointment with Mead is even greater. His “thank-you” to those who secured his nomination has been to cross-over to the Republican right on everything from fracking to Medicaid expansion. He decided that instead of showing gratitude to those who nominated him, he would try to shore up his right-wing.

Now we are coming into 2014 and Democrats are already considering whether to bail out Mike Enzi. Remember George Bush’s admonition, “fool me once, shame on - shame on you. Fool me – well, you can't get fooled again”? Democrats have been victimized by unrequited love before and hesitate to give themselves away again. As much as Democrats relish a chance to get a bit of revenge against Dick Cheney they may choose to exercise some restraint. If Enzi decides that to win the nomination he has to “out-nutty” Liz Cheney, Democrats have nothing to gain or lose by letting Republicans decide their nominee for themselves.

Enzi’s willingness to demand the repeal of Obamacare as the price for his vote to approve a budget is a bad omen. I may be wrong again. Mike Enzi may not need Democrats in 2014 like Mead needed them in 2010. He’s signaling he wants to do it on his own. Unless he throws Democrats a bone, they should let him.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The horrifying truth is that our nation tortures human beings.

With Dick Cheney’s daughter running for the U.S. Senate, Wyoming has an opportunity to become ground zero in an important national debate over whether torture should be used in the war against terrorism. Liz Cheney defends waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques authorized by her father, techniques called “ghoulish, at times medieval” by Jeremy Scahill in his book “Dirty Wars.”
I have been invited to join the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. We seek to stir the national consciousness to reject the use of torture as the policy of the American government.
Before 9/11, it would have been unthinkable that the United States would resort to torture. With little discernment and shrouded in secrecy, ours became what we were taught to despise, a nation that violates the most basic sense of what it means to be civilized. The horrifying truth is that our nation tortures human beings.
Both the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Constitution Project have studied this matter in depth and written reports. The 6,000-page Senate report remains secret. CP’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment publicly released its report this year. Its bipartisan report examines the federal government’s policies and conduct related to the capture, detention, and treatment of suspected terrorists during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.
The task force was co-chaired by former Republican Senator Asa Hutchinson (Arkansas), Under Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security during the George W. Bush administration, and Rep. Jim Jones (D-Oklahoma). The task force includes former high-ranking officials with distinguished careers in the judiciary, Congress, the diplomatic service, law enforcement, the military, other parts of the executive branch, and recognized experts in law, medicine and ethics. The group includes conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats.
The committee found “U.S. forces, in many instances, used interrogation techniques on detainees that constitute torture.” According to the report, “American personnel conducted an even larger number of interrogations that involved ‘cruel, inhuman, or degrading’ treatment.” They concluded this behavior violated international law and our own Constitution and values. Examining public records and interviewing eyewitnesses, the report describes detailed cases where individuals were literally tortured to death, using interrogation techniques the US had previously condemned as illegal when used by others, including waterboarding, extreme stress positions, extended sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, and prolonged solitary confinement.
Because task force members lacked access to classified information, they were unable to put to rest claims made by torture supporters that torture was a useful tactic. Unless the Senate report is made public, some will continue to make claims that what we did was not torture and even if it was, that it saved lives.
We may reach different conclusions, but we should all have the same facts. It’s impossible to have a meaningful debate unless the facts and findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee are on the table.
This is not simply a political debate. It’s theological. This is about our relationship with God. In a very real way, Americans must decide how much of Jesus’ teaching we are willing to discard in order to pursue an immoral public policy.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Teaching the meaning of "T" in LGBT

An old Turkish proverb reads, “A good teacher is like a candle - it consumes itself to light the way for others.”

Bradley Manning is a candle who consumed himself teaching Americans the real horrors of the war. Chelsea Manning will consume herself teaching legal, biological, and social lessons about gender, explaining the “T” in LGBT.

Americans have a contentious relationship with truth. They don’t trust their government to tell it. They don’t like others to reveal it. .” In his book “Dirty Wars,” Jeremy Scahill discloses Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld orchestrated secret American death squads to operate in Iraq, Afghanistan and multiple other sovereign nations. They were unaccountable to Congress and operated far outside the boundaries of American and international law.

Under the cover of “the war against terror” they tortured and/or killed thousands. These soldiers and politicians decided who was guilty or might be guilty. Cheney called it “F3” which was code for “Find, Fix, and Finish” meaning tracking a target, fixing his location, and finishing him off.

Neither Rumsfeld nor Cheney cared much about “collateral damage,” innocent people dying in the line of fire as thousands did. Bradley Manning witnessed the carnage. He decided we should know. So he told the truth, releasing documents and film of the Cheney-Rumsfeld death squads doing what they had been organized to do.

Among the files Manning made public was a video showing an American helicopter firing on a group of men in Baghdad. One was a journalist, two others Reuters employees carrying cameras. The reporters were killed. The Americans then fired on a van that stopped to help the injured. Two children in the van were wounded, their father killed.

Among other files Manning turned over to Wikileaks was video of a May 4, 2009, airstrike in Afghanistan, killing as many as 147 civilians.

Americans were confronted with the truth. The truth can be an embarrassing thing to politicians like Cheney and Rumsfeld. And the American people would rather not learn it. Ask Daniel Ellsberg. It was like that decades ago in Viet Nam and continues to this day.

So, for telling the truth, Bradley Manning got 35 years in prison.

Now Manning reveals he has been imprisoned for life…the prison of being a woman in a man’s body. Chelsea Manning will now become that self-consuming candle that will light the way for others.

Most Americans know less about transgender than they do about what their country really did in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chelsea Manning will likely find most Americans like transgender people less than Bradley Manning learned they like truth tellers. Coming out as she was going into prison will make the experience especially harsh.

We have nearly worked our way through the injustice of discriminating against homosexuals. Thanks to Chelsea Manning, we can now begin the process of learning about the small percentage of our fellow humans who find themselves transgendered.

According to the American Psychological Association, “Transgender is an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression, or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.” Transgendered people have existed, says the APA, “from antiquity until the present day.”

There are apparently few studies to adequately answer the question of how prevalent transgender is in the overall population and researchers are yet unable to explain the phenomenon. But, the APA says, “Many experts believe that biological factors such as genetic influences and prenatal hormone levels, early experiences, and experiences later in adolescence or adulthood may all contribute to the development of transgender identities.”

Neither the lawyers nor the theologians are prepared for the debate Manning has stirred. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote in the Washington Post, “Ultimately, the transgender question is about more than just sex. It’s about what it means to be human.”

Still, I fear it will be a long while before the debate is framed in terms of science, reason, logic and good theology. Manning will, as the Turkish proverb said, consume herself as she lights the way for us on this issue.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Judge not lest ye be judged

Jesus said, “Judge not lest you be judged.” Pope Francis asked, “Who am I to judge?”

By reconnecting the church to Jesus’ words, this Pope has moved his church inexorably toward justice for gays and lesbians. Francis stressed homosexuals should be treated with dignity (unlike the treatment they endure from the pen of some WTE letter writers) and not marginalized.

“If someone is gay,” said the Vicar of Christ, “and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

Peter’s denied knowing Jesus three times. Jesus forgave him but asked Peter three times, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Assured Peter loves him, Jesus entrusted Peter with the care of his flock. Thus Peter is considered the first Pope.
Gays and lesbians wish they had only needed to ask three times whether the church loves them. After decades in which the church has shamefully rejected homosexuals, opposed efforts to protect their rights to be an integral part of society, and marginalized them, at long last Christ’s representative on earth has made it clear to the flock. "The Gospel is for everyone, not just for some," Francis said.
The Pope’s words must have shocked the Catholic hierarchy. In 2005, during the reign of the resigned Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican issued directives barring from the priesthood men "who are actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called 'gay culture."
While the Pope said he wouldn’t judge gay priests, he did judge those in the Vatican whom he said “lobby” for gay rights. Hopefully he’ll be equally critical of the lobbying in which the Church engages to deny gays and lesbians basic civil rights.
While the Catholic Church has not yet made a complete 180-degree turn, the weight of the Pope’s promise to neither judge nor marginalize homosexuals is earthshaking. Pope Francis’ words are a departure from earlier Vatican directives and even a departure from his own earlier thinking. When the Argentine government legalized gay marriage, then Bishop Bergoglio was opposed, calling it "a destructive attack on God's plan."
It would be a mistake to think that the Catholic Church will immediately support marriage equality. Yet, if the Pope were serious when he says homosexuals should not be marginalized, it would seem that at the very least the church should support legislation protecting gays and lesbians from job related discrimination.
Today most states, including Wyoming, allow sexual-orientation-based discrimination. Good workers can be fired, denied a promotion, and be otherwise marginalized simply for being who God made them to be. Earlier this year the Wyoming legislature endorsed this form of discrimination when it defeated legislation which would have protected LGBT workers from discrimination.
Pope Francis’ words are at odds with the position taken last month by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. In a letter setting forth their reasons to oppose the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the Bishops said that while they’re against “unjust discrimination” against people with “a homosexual inclination” they believed that protecting them from job-based discrimination was tantamount to protecting sexual conduct outside of marriage.

Of course, the bill doesn’t do that. It simply provides protections to homosexual and transgender workers similar to protections afforded to other minority groups under the Civil Rights and Americans with Disabilities Acts.
In Wyoming, the Bishop withdrew his church from the Wyoming Association of Churches this year complaining about positions taken by the Association in the legislature. WAC lobbied against the lottery, for prohibiting sex-trafficking, for Medicaid expansion and for a tax increase on cigarettes. But what most likely got the Bishop’s ire was WAC’s work to end employment related discrimination against homosexuals.
In large organizations it takes time for decisions made at the top to reach the bottom. Catholic or not, Christian or not, like it or not…what the Pope says matters. While, for now, the Bishops continue to judge homosexuals, the Pope and Jesus are, alas, of one accord. What is it about “judge not” that’s so hard to understand?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

"The Jew Named Jesus"

"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John’s Gospel attributes these words to Jesus. Ironically many Christians use these words to claim an exclusive relationship between them and God.  But the Jesus in whose mouth John placed these words was not a Christian. He was “The Jew Named Jesus.”

That’s the title of a new book written by Rebekah Simon-Peter. Like Jesus, she was born a Jew. Unlike Jesus, she converted to Christianity. Today Rebekah is, as she says, “both a member of the Jewish people and of the community that follows Jesus.”

Jesus was not a marginal Jew. Simon-Peter notes he was an observant Jew. Jesus honored Jewish holidays, customs, and virtually all of his teachings were rooted in Hebrew Scripture.  Remember the Syrophonecian woman who had to literally shame Jesus into healing her daughter after Jesus told her he had come only “for the lost sheep of Israel.” Not a picture of ecumenism.

 When Jesus said the greatest commandments are to love God and one another he wasn’t establishing new Christian doctrine but rather restating long established Jewish doctrine. The Bible from which Jesus taught, the Torah (what Christians call the Old Testament), said it. Jesus was reiterating its teachings. Deuteronomy 6 says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Leviticus 19 adds, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Simon-Peter acknowledges that prior to the writing of the first Gospel, all of those who were following the crucified Lord were, like him, Jews.  After his resurrection Jesus appeared before the disciples. What was their first concern? “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus’ brother James, his disciple Peter, and the Apostle Paul never renounced Judaism. Christians refer to “the conversion of Saul” as though it was the moment when Paul became a Christian. He didn’t. Long after his experience on the road to Damascus, Paul said, “I am a Jew.” (Acts 22:3).

This is what some theologians call “the Christian problem.” How are Christians to reconcile traditional teachings with the Jewishness of our Jesus? Simon-Peter’s book can help us think through the dilemma.

The result of Christian efforts to distance themselves from Jews despite Jesus is, Simon-Peter writes, centuries of discrimination, hatred, and violence aimed at Jews because Christians learned and taught that the “Jews killed Christ.” Her book includes an excellent analysis of this question, exploring all of the possible answers to the question “who is responsible for Jesus’ death?” Did Jesus offer himself willingly? Was his death part of God’s plan? Did the Romans do it? And, was it the fault of the Jews or some of the Jews?

Scripture often leads, somewhat schizophrenically, to an affirmative answer to each of those questions. This book offers an analysis that will help you integrate what we know about the Roman efforts to control the Jews and anyone else challenging their power, what we know about the times in which Jesus lived, and what we know about the times in which the Gospel was written. Rebekah allows the reader to reach their own conclusions asking only that you see Jesus as part of Jewish culture, history and theology.

I confess I have been one of those Christian preachers who offered my congregation sermons comparing and contrasting what Simon-Peter calls “an inclusive, loving good Christian Jesus against an exclusive, narrow-minded, legalistic Jewish people.” Assuming Jesus to be the first Christian has allowed us to see ourselves as the beneficiaries of a New Covenant while the Jews hold to an old, decayed covenant. Rebekah says that’s a “false dichotomy.”

Her book persuaded me she is correct and I have reformed my teaching around the hope that I can help my congregation find what she calls, “the overlapping space where Judaism and Christianity intersect.”

“The Jew named Jesus” fills that space.