Thursday, July 21, 2005

Sacred Text, Progressive Voices

Back in late 1960s and early 1970s I was part of a group of young adults who ran an ecumenical conference for youth concerned about social justice. It was held at a Protestant retreat center on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.

Some years ago a group of us returned for a reunion, and now we continue to gather every few years to renew our commitment to social justice and to search for ways in which secular ethics and spirituality can co-exist in these turbulent times.

This summer we decided to read a book for discussion, and we picked The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love, written by Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong. When it came my turn to pick some text to discuss, this is what I selected:

"Anxious because God could not be reduced to a human formula, the leaders of the church contented themselves with the task of enforcing the faith they could not define. If one disagreed with these ever-more-differing explanations, one was simply evil. The problem was not in the words; it was in the hardened hearts of the heretics whose obstinacy and sinfulness prevented them from believing. The stage was thus set not for unity but for a purge. Whenever deviant beliefs were discovered, they had to be rooted out and those who espoused them killed in the service of conformity to the catholic faith. So Christianity turned demonic. Infidels like the Jews were constantly persecuted and Muslims as well as Jews were killed in the Crusades. Heretics were burned at the stake. Religious wars were waged to defeat anyone who did not worship properly. Efforts to force people to conform were accomplished by way of torture first and if that failed by execution" (Spong, p. 228).

For some people this represents the entire history of Christianity—and given this history, I am not surprised when people ask me why I consider myself a Christian. I usually toss off a glib line such as “I am unchurched but not uncouth.” What I mean by saying that phrase is the limits and flaws of all organized religions frustrate me, but I see in each a struggle for the identity of the faith. The lessons I learned from the Christian Bible were about helping the weak and the poor, seeking justice, opposing violence and war, speaking truth to power—all of which led me into the progressive movement. Moreover, I learned to highlight a different history of Christianity based on this perspective. As I learned more about the sacred texts of other major world religions, I came to realize that some members of those faiths highlighted these same concerns. They challenge those in their religion who turn toward demonization and scapegoating.

Spong explains that these different approaches derive from the fact that there are different ways to read sacred text. Peter J. Gomes, a preacher at Harvard University and author of The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart makes a similar argument. Gomes urges us to read the Bible carefully and be aware of what passages represent the contemporary prejudices and norms woven into the text by the all-to-human authors.

Rosemary Radford Ruether, author of several books, explores the need to unpack these prejudices when examining spirituality. She uses an analysis of race, class, and gender that sees them as “interconnected structures that create multiple differences.” The group Equal Partners in Faith is built around this notion.

In the past few weeks, there has been a flurry of media coverage declaring that progressive Christians have finally found their voice. We have had our voices all along, thank you. Glad you folks in the media finally decided to listen.

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Friday, July 01, 2005

Making Distinctions - Seeing Possibilities

We have learned a few things at Political Research Associates (PRA) over the past 24 years of studying U.S. right-wing political and social movements, and we have captured our best advice in a document titled "Ground Rules and Tips for Challenging the Right." There are three sections--Do Your Homework, Stay Cool in Public, and Keep Organizing--each with several suggestions.

When PRA staff speak in public we often expand on these recommendations, and a blog seems like a good place to enshrine these musings in written form. Over the next few months, I will pick one suggestion and write a short essay around it, with some useful links if I can find them.

To start, let’s look at the following recommendation:

Distinguish between leaders and followers in right-wing organizations.

Leaders are often “professional” right-wingers. They’ve made a career of promoting a rightist agenda and attacking progressives and progressive issues. Followers, on the other hand, may not be well-informed. They are often mobilized by fears about family and future based on information that, if true, would indeed be frightening. This so-called “education” is often skillful, deceitful, and convincing. These followers may take positions that are more extreme than those of the leaders, but on the other hand, they may not know exactly what they are supporting by attending a certain organization’s rally or conference. To critique and expose the leaders of right-wing organizations is the work of a good progressive organizer, writer or activist. In the case of the followers, however, it is important to reserve judgment and listen to their grievances. Do not assume that they are all sophisticated political agents or have access to a variety of information sources.

-- - Ground Rules and Tips for Challenging the Right

This does not mean that we should think that followers are dimwitted, ignorant, or crazy. That was a common perception promoted by centrist academics during the 1960s, but since the late 1970s sociologists have shown that people who join social movements--left or right--are remarkably similar to the population from which they emerge. And people in social movements are not mesmerized by crafty leaders, cluelessly following the whims of charismatic demagogues. Demagogues exist, to be sure, but they primarily succeed by swaying large groups of people by developing clever ways to frame ideas and issues.

Frames are necessary but not sufficient to build a movement, but frames are an important tool.

That's good news for progressives who want to mobilize a counter-movement. We can examine the frames put forward by the Hard Right and devise alternative frames that drive wedges between specific constituencies. We can do that with topical analysis, for example exploiting the tension between Christian conservatives and libertarians on social issues such as abortion and gay rights. And we can recognize that participants have different levels of commitment and loyalty to social movements.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni has produced a useful set of distinctions that explain this in her AlterNet article The Gospel On Gay Marriage

Aggressive Combatants, who mobilize their followers to go to battle against whatever they consider to be the current threat (most recently, same-sex marriage);

Loyal Followers, who consider the Combatants to be their religious authorities, buying their books, tuning in to their broadcasts, accepting their interpretations of the Bible, and responding to their fundraising pleas;

Thoughtful Questioners, who were drawn to the movement by its emphasis on a personal relationship with God and the importance of the Bible in their lives but are not convinced that all issues are settled or that all the answers are already in;

Hurting Strugglers, sincere believers who earnestly practiced their faith and followed the rules they had been taught, yet were faced with some circumstance that turned their well-ordered world upside down -- a divorce, a gay child, a pregnant teenager, domestic violence, mental illness, job loss, bankruptcy, a suicide in the family.

These are useful names for important distinctions. As Scanzoni observes, we should be focusing our attention of the last two categories: Thoughtful Questioners and Hurting Strugglers, because they are already in a place where new ideas and new frames have a better chance of finding fertile soil.

I happen to think that a commitment to the idea of civil society means we should be treating people with sincere spiritual belief systems with courtesy and respect--just as I think we should be treating secular ethical and moral belief systems with courtesy and respect. In this case, there are hardball pragmatic reasons to be able to talk with Christian conservatives about moral values…we just might change their minds.

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