Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Role of Faith in the Public Square

Say nothing of my religion. It is known to God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life: if it has been honest and dutiful to society the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one. – Thomas Jefferson
On September 12, 1960, then Senator John F. Kennedy, hoping to dispel concerns over the role his Catholic faith would play in the event he became President of the United States, gave a speech on the role of religion in public life before a group of protestant ministers in Houston, Texas. “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair,” Kennedy said. “Whatever issue may come before me as president – on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject – I will make my decision . . . in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”

Although he did not say how his moral conscience or personal ethics may have been shaped or molded by Catholicism, Kennedy assured his audience, and ultimately the American public, that his personal religious beliefs, whatever they might be, would not play a role in fulfilling his duties as president. In his official actions, on issues as wide ranging as the economy and foreign affairs, from policies addressing poverty at home and economic aid abroad, to prayer in school and matters of war and peace, President Kennedy would not be influenced by his religious convictions.

Kennedy’s view on the public neutrality of government in matters of faith has been the standard liberal position for most of my lifetime; whatever a candidate or elected government official may believe or not on matters of faith should have no role in how the nation is governed. It is a uniquely American belief, embedded in the nation’s founding and reflected in our Constitution. The separation of church and state as set forth in the First Amendment is as essential to American notions of freedom as any constitutional doctrine upon which our democracy is based.

For Thomas Jefferson and many of our Founding Fathers, the ideals of religious freedom were more important than one’s specific religion. In Jefferson’s time, and for the next 150 years or so when the religion of most Presidents deviated little from mainstream Protestantism and religion was not used as a wedge issue in presidential politics, it was easy to maintain a principled and neutral view regarding a candidate’s faith. For me personally, and for most liberals (and many others), the principle that religious faith is a private matter, which should have no bearing on a candidate’s public responsibilities, has always been accepted wisdom.

Kennedy’s presidency put to rest the unfounded fears concerning a Catholic president. Not until Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976 did a candidate’s religious beliefs again become a matter of some notoriety. Indeed, Carter’s brand of born-again Christianity made certain segments of the Democratic Party uncomfortable, particularly the secular left and many Jews, 40% of whom broke from their historically Democratic leanings to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980. Although I believe that this was the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding of Carter’s faith -- which emphasizes a concern for all of God’s people and is what motivates his passion for human rights -- and a failure to distinguish Carter’s brand of Christianity from the more conservative elements that dominate evangelical Christianity today, it was also a reflection of America’s ambivalence toward expressions of religion in public life.

Ironically, it was Reagan’s presidency and the ascendancy of right-wing conservatism in the 1980’s that introduced a more aggressive form of politically inspired religion into the public arena. It was during this era when we witnessed the rise of the Moral Majority and the prominence of televangelists such as Pat Robertson, who advocated a conservative political agenda and founded the Christian Coalition and other socially conservative “Christian” groups that advocated a reversal of Roe v. Wade and the outlawing of abortion, pushed for a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to between a man and a woman, and called for the re-establishment of prayer in the public schools and public displays of religious symbolism.

As someone who was raised in a mainline protestant denomination, one which engages in public advocacy in a manner more respectful of America’s diverse religious and ethnic makeup, I am continually perplexed that conservative, often fundamentalist, Christians so dominate our public discourse. That the media makes little effort to point out the many misconceptions these self-proclaimed Christians have concerning their own religion and their lack of respect for the religious diversity and pluralistic traditions of American democracy, only adds to my frustration.

But while religious conservatives tend to dominate discussions of morality in the public square (particularly on issues of personal morality, to the exclusion of issues like economic justice and peace), liberals too often fail to understand the significance of religion in public life and are often reluctant to openly connect religious and moral principles to the issues that most matter to them. On this, our current president is different.

On June 28, 2006, forty-six years after Kennedy’s speech in Houston, then Senator Barack Obama reflected on what he perceived to be the role of religion in public life and how his personal faith has guided his own values and beliefs. Unlike Kennedy, Obama argues for the relevance of religion to political argument, declaring it particularly apt for liberals and progressives. For Obama, it is a mistake for progressives to “abandon the field of religious discourse” in politics. “The discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms.” Obama contends that religion is, historically and culturally, a source of political rhetoric that resonates with many Americans, who comparatively speaking are a religiously inspired and devout people. He recognizes that the solution to many policy issues, from social and economic problems to issues of war and peace, require consideration of the moral dimensions of those problems.

“Our fear of getting ‘preachy’ may . . . lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems,” Obama said. But to address problems like “poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed” often requires “changes in hearts and a change in minds.” Obama believes it a grave mistake to insist on a complete separation of religious conviction from public life, or to insist that moral and religious convictions are irrelevant to one’s views of politics and law.

Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.
As different as Obama’s and Kennedy’s statements are concerning the role of religion and public life, they actually concern two different notions. For Kennedy, it was important to emphasize that a President’s duty is to his country and the Constitution. He was attempting to counter the concerns then being expressed in some parts of the country to a Catholic president. Although some of this concern was simply anti-Catholic prejudice, there was at the time a sincere worry as to whether a Catholic president would be beholden to the Vatican and Catholic doctrine in the conduct of his public affairs. Similar concerns have been raised, and properly dismissed, of the potential influence the Mormon Church may hold on a candidate such as Mitt Romney. Indeed, Romney, who holds a position of importance in the Mormon Church and who proudly identifies as a Mormon, gave a speech in 2007 not dissimilar from Kennedy’s.

That Obama believes one’s religious convictions are relevant to politics and policymaking, however, does not mean he disagrees with Kennedy’s view of the official separation of churchly influence on public policy. What Obama contends is something altogether different – the notion that one cannot truly separate out the moral and religious influences on a candidate’s life and, ultimately, his or her policy positions. As I watch from afar the Republican presidential primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, I believe it is important to know something about what the candidates believe, religiously, morally, and spiritually, and how those beliefs may affect their actions should they become president. Personally, any candidate who believes that evolution and creationism are worthy of equal treatment in our public schools, or who doubts the scientific efficacy of climate change and its importance to our planet’s future, is not a candidate I can trust to have a reasonable conclusion about anything. If a candidate’s brand of Christianity is one of judgmental piety, or is based on a literalistic misinterpretation of the Bible, it is a candidate I cannot support.

Although I do not care what religion our past, present, and future presidents are (or are not), I do care what moral and religious influences motivate their positions on matters of policy. One’s religion (or lack thereof) is an important part of one’s worldview and should not be off limits for any candidate. President Kennedy’s youngest brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, who symbolized and articulated a consistent vision of political liberalism for over forty years after his brother’s death, noted late in life that his politics were very much influenced by his Christian beliefs, specifically in the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and in Matthew 25: 44-45 (Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you? [Jesus replied,] I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.) This religious underpinning of Christian social justice, which molded the likes of Mother Theresa and Dorothy Day, and which forms the basis of Catholic social statements on economic justice, is what motivated Senator Kennedy in his lifetime to work for laws and government programs that benefitted the poor and the working class, to fight for human rights around the world, and to oppose discrimination on the basis of race, gender, disability, and sexual orientation. It is this kind of morality, not one’s personal moral shortcomings, which are of greatest concern to me in how a candidate will govern a country as diverse and complex as the United States.

Of course, one need not be a Christian to share Kennedy’s political vision, or to believe in equality, justice, and the fundamental right of all Americans to have access to quality health care, adequate housing, and economic opportunity. There are certainly many other moral and ethical influences to his brand of liberalism and a belief in the common good. But whether one is motivated by Christian or Jewish or secular ethical principles, I believe it relevant and important to know what religious and moral influences underlie a candidate’s positions.

The separation of church and state is a fundamental aspect of American constitutional democracy, and must never be diluted. A free society depends on a proper distinction between theology and law, between the free exercise of religious belief and the imposition of religious doctrine. But the personal influences and beliefs of our political leaders is always a relevant consideration in deciding whether they can effectively lead the nation in times of turbulence and despair, and whether their vision of America is one I can abide.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Climbing the Verrazano

The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss, but that it is too low and we reach it. – Michelangelo
For most of my life, I have been afraid of heights and small enclosed spaces with no windows. Last week, as part of a work related tour of bridges and tunnels in New York, I overcame both fears to stand on top of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. A beautiful and clear sunny day, the temperature a mild 51 degrees, I stood atop the Brooklyn side tower with my arms outstretched. As I breathed in the slightly chilled air above the New York Bay, I embraced the Manhattan skyline and enjoyed a bird’s eye view of Brooklyn and Staten Island. Life offers a fresh perspective from such heights. The world looks a little different from up there; it opens the mind and forces one to take stock of life. Standing atop the Verrazano, I understood the wisdom of Thomas Carlyle, who said, “The tragedy of life is not so much what men suffer, but rather what they miss.”

The opportunity to climb the Verrazano was presented to me by chance and without planning, as part of a security assessment my firm is conducting for a government agency. Accompanied by a police captain, a maintenance worker, and a colleague, we stuffed into a very small, very old Otis elevator, with rusty metal gates, the kind of elevator one normally avoids at all costs. When I asked if it ever broke down, the maintenance man replied in earnest, “Just don’t jump up and down.” It was at about this point that my palms began to sweat and my lungs contracted. I questioned my sanity. Feelings of panic set in as the elevator moved slowly, creakily, upward, ascending into an abyss of heightened darkness. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, imagining the rescue efforts required to excavate us from a metal box dangling 1,200 feet above the channel where the Hudson River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. I was fairly certain that my cell phone would not receive service from up here, though I was not anxious to test it.

After what seemed like several long minutes, the elevator came to a stop. Naively believing we had reached the top, I quickly realized after the metal gate opened that our ascent was only partially completed. We now had to step into another small, tightly-constricted enclosure and climb four stories of metal ladders affixed to the wall of the tower. Each ladder led through a small tank-like hole. As there were no open spaces or windows, I had no idea precisely where we were at this stage. I sensed only that we were very high off the ground with but one way down. After climbing the ladders and pulling myself up through the fourth hole, I was relieved to find open space expanding the full width of the tower. My claustrophobia slightly receding, I breathed easier as we walked up four normal flights of stairs before reaching yet another ladder and hole. We finally reached what I thought was as far as they would allow us to go, where I glanced through a small window and looked out onto Staten Island, the roadway and New York Bay a long distance below.

The police captain then unlatched a door that opened onto a small ledge with a metal railing. Stepping out onto the ledge, suspended high in the air, I experienced a sensation simultaneously exhilarating and frightening. While peering down the cables that held up the bridge, I became slightly faint and quickly remembered my fear of heights. I stood there anyway for a few moments longer, staring at the wide expanse of the horizon with the Manhattan skyline in the foreground, acknowledging the uniqueness of the experience.

Mistakenly thinking that our “climb” was completed, I was somewhat surprised when the captain led us to yet another ladder, this one thirty feet high and leading to another small hole through which, I was told, was the top of the bridge tower. Did I mention that I am scared of heights? My disdain for tall ladders? I thought good and hard about sitting this next phase out, but after witnessing the 55 year-old police captain and my colleague climb up the ladder, I did what any self-respecting, stupid, testosterone-filled man would do, and I said, “Fuck it.” So, up I went, refusing to look down and tightly gripping each prong of the ladder as if my life depended on it. To eliminate the concern over my sweaty palms, I had put on a pair of work gloves that the maintenance man had offered to me. Finally, I reached the top, climbed up and through the last hole and pulled myself to the platform. I stood straight up and looked all around, in wonderment.

The view of New York from atop the Verrazano is breathtaking. From there, one experiences a panoramic view of all of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Coney Island, and Staten Island. I looked around and soaked it in, feeling fresh and alive. Although my knees were weak and I could hardly believe I was doing it, I savored every minute of the experience, recognizing the rarity of this once-in-a-lifetime moment of overpowering proportions.

* * * *

There are times in one’s life it is important to take stock, to examine how one’s journey is progressing. Standing on top of the Verrazano, I thought of the many things I desire to do before I die. Travel to Israel and pray at the Western Wall; tour the Vatican and stroll quietly through the many small towns and villages of the Italian countryside; visit with my distant relatives in Denmark; view the Northern Lights on a clear night in Iceland; go whale watching in Alaska; spend a night at a medieval castle in England; learn to play the guitar; walk atop the Great Wall of China; and hit live batting practice at a major league ballpark. Although climbing Mt. Everest is not (and never was) on my list, I can at least find satisfaction that I “climbed” the Verrazano.

With the possible exception of live batting practice, there is no reason I cannot eventually do all or most of these things during my remaining time on earth. But for most of my life, something has often stood in the way – obligations of school and work, the strictures of time and family, and the many other distractions and excuses that so often prevent us from ever achieving that which we most desire to accomplish. But perhaps there is more to it than that. As nice as these experiences will be, how essential are they to a good and meaningful life? How important a contribution do they really make to a life filled with purpose, connection, and fulfillment?

When I returned home last week, still flying high from my experience on the Verrazano and having just parked my car in the driveway, I received a call from my very good friend who was distressed over another friend’s sudden illness. I knew his friend, Jerry, as someone I had worked with many years before in Washington, D.C. A former college basketball player and, until about two weeks ago, a very active and healthy person, he woke up one day unable to walk, and he quickly lost his ability to stand, sit, or even talk. Suddenly bedridden and fed intravenously at the hospital, the doctors completely mystified as to the cause of his condition, he confronted the possibility that he may be paralyzed forever, that he may no longer be the man he had always been, and could not be the father, husband, and man he wanted to be. “All I could think about,” Jerry said a few days later, “was how am I going to live my life in this condition?” Thankfully, Jerry has since recovered most of his physical capacities, and he is now walking (with the assistance of a walker), and trying to rehab and regain his full strength. The doctors still do not know what caused his sudden demise, but I am in awe of the immense courage and strength Jerry demonstrated in refusing to give in or give up. For the rest of us, “There, but for the grace of God…”

A very wise person once stated, “The real measure of your wealth is how much you’d be worth if you lost all your money.” Hearing of Jerry’s health problems and learning of the many tragedies and heartbreaks that people face every day, I regret not the failure to achieve certain of life’s goals, my bucket list of sorts, but in having failed to pursue a more perfect life, one full of love and laughter, passion and joy. One that constantly strives, in some small way, to assist others in finding the strength to imagine a life filled with inspiration and hope. I would like to believe it is what motivated me to start this blog and to publish my book, Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart (Bookstand Publishing, 2011), to build a lasting legacy that will remain long after I have departed from this world. But I am never satisfied that I have done enough, because I know that I can always do more, that I am constantly constrained by the practicalities of life and the strictures of conventional thought.

“We all have two choices,” said Jim Rohn, “we can make a living or we can design a life.” When my friend told me of Jerry’s physical ailments, he confessed to his own spiritual crisis of sorts. The demands of his career, his long commute to New York, and his everyday obligations, left him with little else to give. “I’m existing, but I’m not living,” he said. It is a statement that strikes at the heart of the American conscience, a soul wrenching crisis that most of us, at some point in our lives, must confront. How often do we truly make a difference in someone’s life? What have we really done for others, for those less fortunate than ourselves, for the lonely, the sick, the poor? How many simple acts of random kindness have we initiated? Is it only when things are going well, when we are in a good mood that we do for others? How committed are we to our cherished principles and values? These are difficult questions to ask and even more difficult to answer.

“Everyone who got where he is,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, “has had to begin where he was.” It is a comforting thought, for it explains a lot and lessens my own disappointments in not achieving greater things. When I think back from whence I came, I am often astonished at how far I have traveled – college and law school, a career as a trial lawyer and federal prosecutor, a managing director in a worldwide risk management firm, living and succeeding in two major metropolitan areas – not too bad for a small town kid from central New Jersey. And yet, I think back on the many things I probably could have accomplished, and the places I could have been, if only I had the courage and insight to follow my heart and pursue my dreams. “If we did the things we are capable of,” wrote Thomas Edison, “we would astound ourselves.”

Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “Most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done.” As the year comes to a close and a new year embarks around the corner, I vow to examine my life more carefully, to better understand my sense of purpose, and to appreciate the everyday blessings that have been given to me, my health and my family. I vow to live and not simply exist. As Diane Ackerman wrote, “I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.”

Monday, November 28, 2011

November Reflections and the Passage of Time

We live, but a world has passed away
With the years that perished to make us men.
--William Dean Howells
It is late November and the leaves have fallen. The trees stand upright, their branches naked and awkwardly extended, but the sun sets early now. The weather was unseasonably mild this past Thanksgiving, the Pennsylvania air providing a warm respite from the cold chill of winter that waits quietly, ready to strike, with the change of seasons. The geese have yet to depart from the lake at Alverthorpe Park near my home, as if wisely discerning nature’s shifting currents. It is a physically peaceful time of year, disguising the anxieties of a weak economy and a troubled world.

In spending time this weekend with my daughters, their friends, and Andrea's sons and nieces, I was provided an opportunity to hear the voices of college seniors discuss their studies and hopes for the future. Soon to embark on a new stage of life, one filled with career choices and financial independence, these young people collectively expressed the same concerns; a deep-seated anxiety permeates the atmosphere. As final exams and papers await their return to campus, more pressing concerns linger; the need to secure a full-time job upon graduation, the advent of adulthood, and the notion of what to do with one’s life. It seems as if not so long ago I stood in their shoes; and yet, I have lived nearly three-fifths of my life since then. The times may keep changing, but the anxieties remain the same.

“Time is not measured by the passing of years,” said Jawaharlal Nehru, “but by what one does, what one feels, and what one achieves.” In talking with our collective children, I am anxious to dispense advice, to show that I am a sage possessed of wisdom and profound insight. But I soon realize that my counsel consists of words with no guarantees, adages and maxims intertwined with the unstated reality of my own life, of choices made and opportunities lost. It seems like only yesterday when my children were just entering school, the canvas of their lives yet to be painted. As Jennifer embarks on her final months of college and Hannah prepares for her college years, their father’s input is filtered through an independent lens. They are young women now, with career paths and friendships distinctly separate from the young girls who once sought their father’s time and attention. I would not have it any other way, but I wonder where the time has gone.

“Our death is not an end if we can live on in our children and the younger generation,” said Albert Einstein. “For they are us; our bodies are only wilted leaves on the tree of life.” It is a comforting thought when I reflect on how quickly life passes us by. Try as I might not to live in the past, I nevertheless think back on decisions made and paths chosen; on what might have been had other avenues been traveled. Living in the present, my time occupied by work, financial responsibilities, and the everyday realities of life, I cannot help but feel that something is missing, that the years run too short and the days too fast. As I grow older, I long for the days of my youth, when backyard football games and basketball shootouts in our family’s makeshift court by the garage occupied autumn afternoons. With the passage of time, those days appear simpler, distant memories replaced by the serious stuff of life; the demands of careers, the costs of medical care, rising mortgage payments and tuition bills.

“Time is a cruel thief to rob us of our former selves,” wrote Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, “We lose as much to life as we do to death.” But words are cheap. It is easy for me to advise others to make the most of life, to take risks for lives of passion and adventure. Looking back, did I do the same? Or have I simply chosen the paths of least resistance? “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live,” admonished Henry David Thoreau. I would like to tell these idealistic, bright-eyed college students to do what makes them happy, that happiness and success awaits them if only they pursue their dreams. And yet, there are so many things I have wanted to accomplish, so many dreams yet fulfilled.

My greatest obstacle has always been the limits of my imagination and a strong aversion to risk. Many of my career choices have been wise and satisfying; my decision to attend law school, my career as a federal prosecutor, even my present career in corporate investigations. I have successfully evaded life in a big law firm, or as a managerial bureaucrat in a large, vastly impersonal corporation. But at the end of the day, have I not merely served the interests of the property classes and status quo? Certainly, my career choices were not risky. And I am as incapable today of predicting the future as I was thirty years ago, when I stood in the shoes of a college senior.

We journey through life in search of meaning and purpose. Bounded by conventional thought, the practicalities of life often stand in the way; concerns over money, the cost of insurance, the strictures of time. I occasionally wonder if life would have been more meaningful as a writer, or teacher, or legal aid lawyer. Is it too late to do these things now, to alter my life’s course? For a moment it sounds grand, and then, conventional thinking sets in and the inevitable, practical and necessary questions arise. How can I make writing, or teaching, or serving the poor my life’s mission and continue to support my children’s education and pay my mortgage? Perhaps if I was truly committed, I could make it work, somehow. The choices I have made in life are my own and, like most, I choose to protect my own interests, and that of my family, first. I don’t apologize for these choices, for the necessary compromises of life, but I cling to the hope that there remains time to accomplish more, to complete my canvas with the colorful brushstrokes of a life well lived, a life of meaning and purpose.

For now, I can only impart to my children and their friends the wise counsel of Carl Sandburg: “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” Too often we fill our time responding to the demands of others, fulfilling societal expectations. In the end, however, we must satisfy our own longings for a life of love and integrity, service and sincerity. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Education of a Guinea Pig: On Love, Loss, and Pringles

Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened. – Anatole France.
When I was two years old, I stood by the front door of our house in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, and watched helplessly as our dog, a small toy fox terrier named Skippy, chased after a squirrel and crossed the street as a car sped past.  He was struck and killed instantly.  I can still picture the young driver, a teenager with grease-backed hair, remorsefully carrying Skippy from the street after wrapping him in a blanket. “Car kill ‘kippy, Mommy,” I allegedly repeated for several days thereafter, too young to understand why something that I loved and cared for, a member of the family really, could be taken away from us so suddenly. It is my earliest living memory.  I discovered at a very young age the pain that comes from a willingness to love what death can quickly erase.

The next year we welcomed a new dog into our lives. Peppy was a little chubbier; a black-and-white terrier with no tail, he looked a bit like a pig with a large nose. For the next sixteen years, Peppy and I lived under the same roof. He was the first to greet me when I arrived home from school each day, and he kept me company whenever I sat in the big chair in the living room or watched television in the family room. I took him for walks, snuck food to him under the dinner table, and played tug rope with him on the kitchen floor. We understood each other and hung out together almost every day. When he died, during my freshman year in college, it was like losing a brother.

Anyone who has ever connected with and loved an animal understands the emotional bond that forms between people and their pets. Last week, Pringles, my daughter’s guinea pig, had to be put to sleep at the age of six – a good life for a guinea pig, but a difficult and sad day nonetheless. Pringles’ intestines had started to fail and, despite the best efforts of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, there was little they could do for him. Hannah and I were heartbroken. The death of a special pet is like the loss of a good friend.  In the words of Kabril Gibran, “Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”

As small and insignificant as it may seem to speak of a guinea pig, we loved Pringles. He was a member of the family and, while he could not communicate with the same emotional clarity as a dog, or demonstrate independence and contempt in the manner of a cat, deep down I know he loved us back. He regularly cuddled with Hannah, laying against her chest as she rubbed his chin or stroked his neck and back. He was extremely sociable and loved being with people. For the first few years of his life, we let him run around the living room floor and explore the nooks and crannies of the furniture as we talked, read, or watched television. He never ventured far from us and seemed to appreciate the freedom and trust we bestowed on him.  This past year, he slowed down considerably and became increasingly affectionate as Hannah, Andrea and I took turns holding him as he breathed contentedly and occasionally squeaked with delight.

I am convinced that Pringles was a Cardinals fan.  He was our good luck charm during the last two months of the baseball season and his presence helped jumpstart many late-inning Cardinals’ rallies.  I kid you not.  Forget the Rally Squirrel, we had the Rally Pig! Leaving nothing to chance, we ensured that Pringles was with us for several innings of Game Seven, an insurance policy against a potential Rangers comeback that paid dividends as the Cards put the final touches on their World Championship. Although I will confess that Pringles seemed a bit perplexed when I attempted to fist pump him during the post-game celebration.

“Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful,” said Russian born author Isaac Asimov, “It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” I do not question the necessity of our decision to let Pringles go. It was peaceful and painless and best for Pringles. And I am grateful that he was allowed to spend the final moments of his life in Hannah’s arms, happy and content. But we were unprepared for the decision. Hannah and I brought him to the veterinary hospital because we thought, we hoped, that he could be treated, perhaps given some medication or other remedy that would make him better. When confronted with the prognosis, we were caught off guard and forced to choose between the selfish desire to hold onto our friend for a little while longer and the selfless decision to let him go, in peace.

As our memories of Pringles live on, we can obtain a small degree of solace knowing that, for six full and engaging years, this small, furry rodent connected with us, and we to him. “The risk of love is loss, and the price of loss is grief,” noted teacher and author Hilary Stanton Zunin. “But the pain of grief is only a shadow when compared with the pain of never risking love.”

Each morning this past week, upon entering the kitchen, I have experienced a void left by Pringles’ absence. Life seems a little lonelier now. He no longer greets me in the morning as if to say, “It’s about time, bud. Now what’s for breakfast?” He is no longer there to keep us company as we prepare dinner. In a small but significant way, he touched our lives, and we touched his, and each of us was made better because of it. And while I would like to believe that, in the words of Lord Alfred Tennyson, “God’s finger touched him, and he slept,” I know for certain that he will be missed.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Of Destiny and Miracles

Until now, the Cardinals had never won a World Series with a team like this. A team that was lost, left behind and stranded in the standings. A team too proud and stubborn to accept the hopelessness of the situation. A team that fought back like no other has in franchise history. – Bernie Miklasz, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
There are some things in life that defy logic and reason. This past baseball season was one of them. As a Cardinals fan, this was a season of beauty and despair, jubilation and heartache, quirky plays and momentous comebacks. When the final out of Game 7 was recorded Friday night, a fly ball lifted high in the air towards the left field warning track that was caught by Allen Craig, I celebrated, hugged Andrea and my daughter, and yelled a cheer of joy and jubilation. But mostly I exhaled a sigh of relief, my emotions having been shot these past two months in a wild season of zany comebacks, devastating losses, and up and down swings. Invested as I was in this magical, historic season, the day after was anti-climactic, sad almost, as if something special and unique had been lost, forever extinguished to the dustbin of history, lost to the invisible forces of time and memory.

I am not certain if I really believe in destiny, or in miracles, but at least in the realm of baseball, if such things do exist, I witnessed it these past two months. To explain the Cardinals comeback in Game 6 of the World Series requires more than a mere knowledge of baseball folklore and physics. Having made three embarrassing errors earlier in the game, they trailed by two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning and were down to their last strike – their last breath really – when suddenly, magically, the forces of destiny overtook the cozy confines of Busch Stadium and willed the Cardinals to victory. The Rangers had on the mound one of the most reliable closers in the major leagues, Neftali Perez, a man who throws 99-mile-per-hour fastballs mixed with devastating sliders. But in a high intensity, pressure-filled at bat, with two strikes on him, David Freese, the Cardinals’ young third baseman, a hometown kid with two injury-plagued half-seasons under his belt, drilled a two-run triple off the right field wall to tie the game. I was delirious.

A few minutes later, when Josh Hamilton of the Rangers hit a two run home run in the top of the tenth to put the Rangers back on top 9-7, it appeared as if the Cardinals had finally run out of steam. We should have known better. Since August 25th, when the Cardinals were declared dead and finished by virtually everyone in baseball before going on a five-week run that is among the most brilliant and improbable comebacks in baseball history, this team has made clear they will fight to the finish. In the bottom of the tenth, with two outs and two strikes on Lance Berkman, the Rangers again one pitch away from a championship, Berkman hit a sinking line drive into the outfield to bring in the tying run, again. So, when Freese led off the bottom of the eleventh and hit a soaring 429-foot home run into the grassy knoll beyond the center field fence to win Game 6 in dramatic, walk-off fashion, it seemed almost inevitable, the forces of destiny having officially descended upon the Cardinals faithful.

“One of the great mysteries of sports is why some teams win and others lose,” writes Tyler Kepner of The New York Times. “Is it talent? Fate? Character? Karma?” The Cardinals seemed to have all of these things this year, although it did not seem that way in Spring Training when ace pitcher Adam Wainwright was injured and lost for the season, or when 17 key players at one time or another wound up on the disabled list throughout the first four months.

This may not be the most talented Cardinals team in my lifetime, but it may be the most memorable. The Cardinals were at times exasperating this year, blowing more saves than every other team in baseball except the Washington Nationals, and setting a National League record for grounding into the most double plays in one season. And yet, there were moments in mid-September that you sensed the possibilities. The Braves were slipping, descending into mediocrity, or worse, just when the Cardinals were putting it all together. When the Cardinals took three-out-of-four from the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park in mid-September, destiny became a possibility. And then, when the Phillies swept the Braves in the final three games of the season, the Cardinals also needing to win on that final day to even have a chance at the playoffs, there was a sense that the Gods of Baseball were believers themselves.

The rest is history now. After losing the opening playoff game to Roy Halladay, and down 4-0 in Game 2 of the League Division Series against Cliff Lee, who until then had a 72-1 career record in games in which his team led by four runs or more, the Cardinals came from behind to win, and then won two of the next three to upset the powerful and highly-favored Philadelphia team, beating them on their home turf in the fifth and final game. They were not supposed to beat the Milawaukee Brewers in the League Championship Series either, and when they lost Game 1 in Milwaukee, it seemed like their magic had run out. But then they rallied to win four of the next five games against the team with the best home record in all of baseball, and another miracle was in the books.

This World Series was exceptional in part because each team was so evenly matched. Except for Game 3, when Albert Pujols hit three home runs and propelled the Cardinals to a 16-7 win, the outcome of each game seemed determined by luck and fate and plays decided by a matter of inches. If Yadier Molina’s throw to second on Ian Kinsler’s steal attempt in the ninth inning of Game 2 is a millisecond faster or four inches lower, Kinsler is out and the Rangers probably lose Game 2. If Nelson Cruz gets a better jump on David Freese’s line drive in the bottom of the ninth in Game 6, or if he stretches out just a few inches more, he probably catches the ball and the Rangers win the Series in six games. If God had been a Rangers fan, he would not have allowed a rainstorm on Wednesday night to postpone Game 6 until Thursday and make it possible for the Cardinals to start Chris Carpenter on three days’ rest in Game 7.

I cannot remember how many times this season, down the stretch in September, and throughout the postseason, that the Cardinals were deemed all but finished. But then Friday night in Game 7, when Jason Motte retired the final Rangers batter and the Cardinals jumped for joy, embracing each other like little kids who had just won a prize, the season finally came to a close with the Cardinals on top. “You gotta be a man to play baseball,” the great Roy Campanella once said, “but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you, too.” It has been tremendous fun to watch.

* * * *

As I look out my window this morning on our quiet tree-lined street in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, the ground is covered with snow and ice, winter having come early this year. A cold, harsh chill has replaced the crisp October air and the leaves cling desperately to their branches as if caught unawares by the forces of nature. Baseball is over now and life goes on, the long season but a collage of memories as the images of this wild and magical season quickly blend into the tide of baseball history. The Cardinals will stick around for a couple of days and enjoy the moment. They will bask in the glow of victory on Sunday afternoon as they parade down the streets of St. Louis to thousands of cheering fans, forever grateful that, for one brief and glorious moment, they could forget about the struggles of everyday life and together experience a baseball miracle. The Cardinals players will then head home for the winter, to rest, reflect, and prepare for next season, when they will endeavor to repeat the illogical, beautiful, exasperating, routine zaniness that is baseball.

In a few days, as I begin my annual sabbatical from baseball, it will again be time to rake the leaves. Meanwhile, I will join the ranks of the lucky few who can sleep with the knowledge that their team has won the last game of the season. In a quiet moment, when I have time to reflect, I will replay in my mind this miraculous season to better understand just how close things really were to a completely different, less satisfying result. And I will be forever grateful to the Gods of Baseball who, this season at least, allowed an outcome that may only properly be explained by destiny and miracles.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Howling at the Moon and the Lost American Dream

We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we're working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent. – “We Are The 99 Percent” (
Although I have never been entirely comfortable with street protests and Guerilla Theater, preferring instead the traditional tools of democracy, debate and persuasion to achieve a better world, I understand the need for them. On occasion, public demonstrations have changed the course of history. When in 1963 the late Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth organized a group of black students and clergymen in Birmingham, Alabama, to protest segregation, the ensuing photographs displaying the vicious attacks and fire hoses of Bull Connor shocked the nation’s conscience. More importantly, it awakened Americans to the injustices of racism and moved public opinion, eventually resulting in equal rights for all Americans. A few years later, when hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets to oppose the Vietnam War, a sitting president chose not to run for reelection and influential members of Congress began questioning U.S. involvement in an immoral war. More recently, protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo helped propel an Arab Spring that has toppled corrupt dictators in Egypt and Libya.

Viewed from the broad perspective of history, the Occupy Wall Street movement may prove ineffectual and less momentous. Its message is unclear and its solutions virtually non-existent. But I do believe the protesters are tapping into something real. A sense of frustration with the lost American dream, perhaps, or a feeling that the system is rigged against the middle class, that it is no longer enough to finish school and work hard to get ahead in America, and that the rules have changed. The economy has become a high-stakes casino where the lucky 1% (or even 5%) wins all the prizes, while the rest fight for the scraps. There is something not right with America right now. The reasons are most certainly complex and not entirely understood, but the notion that our political and business leaders have for too long ignored the plight and suffering of the average citizen resonates strongly.

As far as I can discern, the protestors that make up the Occupy Wall Street movement have no definable political demands, and the vague, open-ended character of their message is a bit frustrating. But the catchphrase We are the 99 percent has a plain-speaking directness that gives voice to the widening disparity between the richest Americans and everyone else, a level of inequality not seen since the Great Depression. Consider just some of these facts:

• The 400 wealthiest Americans today have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans (The New York Times).

• The top 1 percent of income earners has more accumulated wealth than the bottom 90 percent (The New York Times).

• To join the ranks of the top 1 percent requires a minimum annual income of $516,633 and an average net wealth of $14 million. By comparison, 50% of U.S. workers earned less than $26,364 in 2010 (The Washington Post; Social Security Administration).

• The average salary in the financial sector in New York City is $361,330, nearly six times what the average worker makes in all other private sector jobs in New York (The New York Times; New York State Comptroller).

• 25 of the 100 highest paid CEOs in the United States took home more pay than their companies paid in federal corporate income taxes (Institute of Policy Studies).

• The average CEO at publicly-traded corporations makes 350 times that of the average worker. Only thirty years ago, this disparity was 50-to-1. (Institute for Policy Studies).

• Adjusting for inflation, the average hourly earnings of American workers have not increased in 50 years (Institute for Policy Studies; Bureau of Labor Statistics).

• The United States ranks 93rd in the world in income inequality (Central Intelligence Agency, 2010).

It is hard not to question the morality of an economic system that so greatly rewards a small few while requiring all others to struggle in a survival-of-the-fittest, dog-eat-dog world. “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, “but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.” As the Rev. Jim Wallis noted in Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street (Howard Books 2010), “The rules of the game seem to have worked for those who set the rules, but not for those who played by them.” America’s economic system, built on a foundation of profit-motive and self-interest, an economic model based historically on a pre-industrial, agrarian society, when too-big-to-fail financial institutions and multi-national conglomerates did not control the reins of power and wealth, has reached a point where the American dream is no longer accessible to the vast majority of participants. For the past thirty years, ever since the Reagan Revolution, Wallis states:

We were promised that as the rich got richer, the rest of the country would prosper as well. If we handed our finances and ultimately our lives over to those who knew the market the best, it would benefit us all. If we took the virtues of the market and made them the virtues of our lives, we, too, would experience boundless prosperity. Fulfillment would come if we could just trust the market enough to work for us…
“Left to themselves, economic forces do not work out for the best except perhaps for the powerful.” So wrote John Kenneth Galbraith in Economics and the Public Purpose (Houghton Mifflin 1973), the last installment of his classic trilogy that started with The Affluent Society (Houghton Mifflin 1958) and The New Industrial State (Houghton Mifflin 1967). A Harvard economist and public intellectual who served in the Office of Price Administration during World War II and as United States Ambassador to India in the Kennedy administration, Galbraith wrote eloquently and plainly about the practical effects of economic theory, explaining the workings of free market capitalism in the real world of global conglomerates, oligopolies, and a powerful financial sector. According to Galbraith, how economic systems perform and for whom are very much dependent upon a society’s distribution of power and wealth. A capitalist economy is in constant tension with our democratic ideals, for “the man who spends $70,000 in the course of a year speaks to the market with ten times as much authority on what is produced as does the man who disposes of but $7000.” Although power rests with the individual, “in the exercise of that power, some individuals are more equal than others.”

This is evident in the faces and stories of the many people who have joined the protestors in 150 cities throughout the country. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton professor of international affairs, told The New York Times, “Go to the Web site ‘We Are the 99 percent’ and you will see . . . page after page of testimonials from members of the middle class who took out mortgages to pay for education, took out mortgages to buy their houses . . . worked hard at the jobs they could find, and ended up . . . on the precipice of financial and social ruin.” It seems that the economic system we have relied upon for so long to provide stability and opportunity to all who are willing to play by the rules and work hard, has left behind all but a select few.

In 2010, corporate profits as a percentage of the economy exceeded $1.4 trillion, an all-time high, while wages as a percentage of the economy have dropped to an all-time low (source: St. Louis Federal Reserve). And yet, many companies continue to downsize, cutting costs (and people) to further increase profits. Meanwhile, unemployment hovers officially at above 9% and the real jobless rate (including those who have stopped looking for work and part-time employees in need of full-time work) stagnates at 17% of the workforce. Median family income has fallen 6.7 percent over the past two years, while executive compensation has reached near-historic levels.

Of course, ask a highly-paid corporate executive why companies reduce jobs even as profits soar and you will likely receive a carefully articulated, economically rational explanation. It is precisely why we cannot rely upon the private sector alone to solve the nation’s economic ills. And it is why an economic system in which the sole legal obligation of individual firms is to maximize profits, and which rewards short-term gain at the expense of long-term stability, is a flawed and unsustainable system.

When the richest 1 percent rake in money as if perpetual winners at a gambling table, while the wages and jobs available to working class Americans are cut; when a college education goes from something that almost any middle class family could afford 25 years ago to being a huge debt burden on the young; when the richest 5% of the country controls almost all of the nation’s wealth; and when both major political parties cater to corporate interests and the needs of their wealthy donors, it is understandable that people have taken to the streets.

But income inequality is only part of the story. Occupy Wall Street, as disorganized and ineffectual as it may be, has hit a vital nerve, because average citizens do not believe anyone speaks for them. They cannot afford K Street lobbyists or $25,000 plate fundraisers. They know that when extremely well compensated executives and investment bankers run their businesses into the ground, the politicians will come to their aid, while the average citizen who loses a job, or a home, or has his retirement fund decimated, is told to make do.

There was a time when Americans had an unshakable faith that their government stood ready to help in times of need. Under the New Deal, and later during the Great Society, the nation established the concept of economic security as a collective responsibility. Putting people to work and building and repairing the nation’s infrastructure became a governmental, community imperative. Enduring programs like Medicare and Social Security, which today serves 54 million Americans, has helped tens of millions of Americans avoid poverty. At a time when corporate pensions and job security have become quaint notions of a distant past, I am astounded that government programs which aid our most vulnerable citizens, which provide a fair shake for the middle class, and which put people to work, are under constant attack.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has hit a nerve because it encompasses the majority of Americans who feel left behind, ordinary people struggling with hard times and looking for answers. It is a movement of people who yearn to be heard, whose voices are calling out for a political and economic system that truly provides economic opportunity and fairness for all. They are the 99% who wish for a country where the government wisely spends tax revenue and works to create jobs; a country that takes care of working families; an economic system that values people and encourages corporations to invest in the American workforce, even at the expense of a small portion of profit. It is a movement that wishes to retain the American Dream that has all but vanished from our grasp.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Still Believing in Miracles

I think it’s really good for baseball. It’s not so good for my stomach. – Terry Francona
“I hear you’re a Cardinals fan,” a co-worker said to me the other day, as I retrieved my morning coffee. A slightly disdainful glare penetrated his raised eyebrow. He looked none too pleased.

“Uh, yeah,” I replied, resisting the need to explain myself. “Yes, I am, in fact.” There, I said it, what’s it to you? “Who told you?” I asked. If you’re surrounded by assassins, the first thing you need to know is where the sharpshooters are positioned.

It is a part of life to which I have become accustomed, rooting for a team that plays 1,500 miles away in a city to which I have no physical or familial connection. I journey through life in a baseball diaspora, wandering through the streets of Philadelphia in a permanent state of isolation, an outsider, a fan in perpetual exile. It can be a lonely journey indeed.

The hometown faithful in Philadelphia have had much to cheer about these past five years, their baseball team the dominant force, along with the Bronx Bombers, in Major League Baseball. It is not something Phillies’ fans have experienced much in the past half century. Nevertheless, here we are. For the first time in 80 years, Philadelphia and St. Louis are meeting in the postseason (in 1931, the Cardinals defeated the Philadelphia Athletics in a best-of-seven World Series matchup), and the Phillies are the prohibitive favorites. They have one of the best starting rotations in recent baseball history, with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt providing an excess of pitching talent that is the envy of every other team in the league. The Cardinals, by contrast, are lucky to be here, having overcome a 10 ½ game deficit in the Wild Card standings as of August 25th, surpassing the Atlanta Braves with a wild and wonderful September run and sneaking into the postseason with the help of a Braves late-season slide. It was a comeback of historic proportions in a season filled with monumental collapses and miraculous come-from-behind victories.

Four weeks ago, it appeared as if September would be uninspiring, merely a place setter until October baseball arrived, when the dominant teams could finally go head-to-head. But in baseball, as in life, expectations can easily be destroyed. Disappointment and despair once again hovered over the banks of the Charles River as the Red Sox faithful watched helplessly as their team lost 20 of its final 27 games, its lead steadily eroded by the advancing Tampa Bay Rays during the worst September downfall in baseball history. Boston’s playoff hopes still alive on the last game of the season, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon was just one strike away from securing a 3-2 win over the Orioles. Then, in a flash, the Orioles ripped three consecutive hits, scoring two runs and beating the Sox 4-3. Three minutes later, Evan Longoria put the finishing touches on a 8-7 Rays victory with a walk-off home run in the bottom of the tenth against the Yankees, who just thirty minutes earlier had led 7-0 in the bottom of the eighth. It seems the Curse of the Bambino has not entirely vacated the spiritual descendants of Fenway Park.

Meanwhile, Cardinal Nation erupted in cheers as the Cardinals put the finishing touches on an 8-0 win in Houston, while the Braves, who had led the Cards by 8 ½ games on September 1st, were swept by the Phillies during the final three games, the last an extra-inning nail biter won by the Phillies in the 13th inning. The Braves had simply run out of gas.

In the movie Moneyball, Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager played by Brad Pitt, downplays the importance of a winning record, because history “only remembers the guy who wins the last game of the season.” Winning a lot of games in the regular season is fine, but only one team is left standing at the end. Thus, my exuberance and delight on Wednesday night quickly turned to nervous anxiety on Thursday, as I began listening to Philadelphia sports commentators discuss how the Phillies would manhandle the Redbirds, and as co-workers and “friends” started saying things like, “Your boys are going down!” and less publishable dispensations.

I am a modest, quiet fan (this is a general observation that, unfortunately for those around me, does not apply at game time). I believe that if I brag or boast or predict certain victory, the Baseball Gods will punish me with vengeful retribution. So, I take the potshots and ribbing offered by Phillies fans in stride, waving them off with a gentle laugh and an indecipherable, “Well, yeah, we’ll see.” After all, isn’t it always better to come into a series as The Underdog, the team expected to lose? It relieves the pressure; no one expects you to win anyway.

The Cardinals were not even expected to be in the playoffs this year. They did it with a final month of inspired play and come-from-behind victories, clutch hitting and good pitching that defied what I had witnessed during the dog days of summer, when their play was, at times, abysmal, full of blown saves, running mistakes, and fielding errors at the most inopportune times. Somehow this bandaged group of over-the-hill has beens and unproven youngsters put it all together in September, just when the Braves fell apart. So, here we are. It is why I love baseball so much. David beats Goliath more than is statistically likely, and the slow, steady rhythm of three-hour games, filled with balls and strikes and foul tips, suddenly transforms into bottom of the ninth walk-off wins and come-from-behind miracles.

The Cardinals somehow succeeded this year, despite a slew of injuries to key players, including the loss of Adam Wainwright, their best pitcher and a 20-game winner in 2010, before Spring Training even started. They will have to compete now with a hobbling Rafael Furcal and an ailing Matt Holliday. The Phillies, naturally, are speaking confidently, noting how healthy they are as a team, with no injuries presently ailing their key players. Such is my luck, of course. But I am used to it. A life selflessly devoted to one baseball team is a life filled with failed expectations and disappointing finishes, the occasional moments of sheer exuberance making it all worthwhile.

But it is October now, and the team that plays the best baseball over the next three weeks will become the World Champions. As the Cardinals discovered in 2006, when they limped into the postseason with a mere 83 wins, once you get to this part of the season, miracles really can happen.

Last night, for a wonderful sixty minutes or so, it looked like 2006 could be happening all over again. Lance Berkman crushed a three-run homer off of Roy Halladay in the top of the first and Kyle Lohse set down the first eleven Phillies batters he faced. The Cards held a 3-1 lead into the sixth. But then it all fell apart, as the Phillies erupted for ten runs over three innings. Despite a late gasp from the Cards’ bats in the ninth, game one ended with an 11-6 drubbing by the Phils, my dream of a miracle deferred for another night.

Regardless of what happens from here, however, I will savor every moment of this desperate season and dream of a miracle. I will watch every pitch and second guess Tony La Russa’s managerial calls, get my hopes up when the Cardinals do well and wither in anger and disappointment when they fail. But mostly I will be doing what I have been doing for the past five decades, anticipating an extraordinary finish, trying to will a Cardinals victory against all odds, hoping that this is all part of a real-life fantasy, when the expectant dreams of youth overcome the rational anxieties of age. Until the Cardinals are forced to pack their bags and descend into the night, when my dreams of winning the last game of the season confronts the cold, dark winter, I will continue to believe in miracles.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Day to Remember

For we are not a nation that says, 'don't ask, don’t tell.' We are a nation that says, "Out of many, we are one." -- President Barack Obama.
On September 20, 2011, the federal law and U.S. military policy known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was officially repealed. No longer must gay and lesbian military professionals be forced to lie about a fundamental aspect of their humanity to serve the country they love. Consistent with the ideals of America’s founding, these patriotic Americans who wish only to serve their country can now do so without fear of rejection and retribution stemming from an unfair and immoral law.

I do not know personally what it means to be gay any more than I know what it means to be black or female. But I do know that, as human beings with sexual needs and preferences, all of us, gay or straight, are what we are; our sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. It just is. I did not choose to be straight any more than I chose not to be gay. Sometime around the age of twelve I woke up and discovered that girls were not so bad after all, that they looked better and smelled better and that I was increasingly motivated by mysterious forces to want to be in their company. Talk to anyone who is gay and you will discover that things were not much different for them, except they were not permitted to openly discuss their feelings for fear of being bullied, ridiculed, or worse.

The discovery that one is gay in America often is accompanied by great internal struggle and resistance. According to a 2009 study by the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, adolescents rejected by their families for being gay are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. As writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh has noted, "The most exhausting thing in life is being insincere." Sexual identity is not a lifestyle preference, but a biologically driven fact of life, a concept so fundamental to the issue of gay rights that I continue to be confounded by the silliness of the opposition. And yet, walk into a conference of the Southern Baptist Convention in which war, poverty, guns, and equal rights for gays are on the agenda, and guess which one they are most passionately against.

In 1948, President Harry Truman issued an executive order to desegregate the armed forces, thus ending what until then had been a disgraceful contradiction of American ideals. Although Truman was not an enlightened man by today’s standards on matters of race, he nevertheless believed that any man who risked his life fighting for America’s freedoms was entitled to the dignity and respect afforded all soldiers; that men willing to die defending the Constitution were entitled to the same protections guaranteed by that Constitution. Sixty-three years later, it is difficult to imagine that we ever felt differently. Today, many of our most decorated soldiers and some of our finest officers and generals are African Americans. With the formal repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, we can begin finally to apply the same principles of justice and equality to the many dedicated and committed gays and lesbians serving our country.

According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, since 1993, when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell became federal law (a political compromise agreed to after President Clinton was lambasted for attempting to do what is now the law of the land), more than 14,500 military personnel have been discharged simply because they are gay. The United States has refused to allow thousands of highly qualified men and women to serve, not because they did anything wrong, not because they were disloyal, insubordinate, or incompetent – indeed, most served with great distinction – but simply because it was discovered that God had created them in a manner deemed unworthy of military service. That they were attracted to, or in committed relationships with, a person of the same sex caused them to be discharged, in many instances, simply because they refused to lie about who they loved, or lived with, or with whom they engaged in private, consensual relations.

“When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one,” reads the epitaph on the tombstone of Leonard Matlovich, a Vietnam War veteran who received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star and who, in the 1970’s, became the first gay service member to fight the ban on gays in the military. The Army and Marine Corps take pride in teaching values such as loyalty, duty, honor, integrity, and courage. They appropriately expect their soldiers to live up to these values. Until the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, however, it was legally required that gay soldiers violate each one of these precepts. The U.S. military expected gay service members to be disloyal to their partners, dishonest with their superiors, and to suppress the personal courage needed to publicly lead lives of integrity.

Discrimination because of race, religion, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation in almost all contexts is morally wrong and unjust. It also is counter-productive. Eighteen years of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has negatively impacted military readiness and weakened the nation. Since 2003, at the very moment when the country desperately needed Arabic-speaking and other foreign language specialists in the war on terror, the military discharged over 300 Arabic and Farsi translators on suspicion of being gay. As the writer Ernest Gaines asked, “Why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than holding hands?”

I am confident that someday we will look back with disbelief on the time when a decorated and capable soldier could be court-martialed simply because he or she had admitted to being gay, or was found to be in a loving relationship with a person of the same gender. Someday perhaps we will express the same sense of dismay as we do now over the racist laws of the Jim Crow South, or the outdated notion that African Americans and women were not capable of effectively serving and defending their country. That the landmark repeal on September 20th came and went with limited fanfare suggests that we are headed in the right direction, that it is just a matter of time.

There will, of course, remain people settled in their narrow and limited mindsets, convinced by misapplied biblical texts or unscientific and disproven views of sexuality that the United States, by embracing acceptance and greater understanding, is a nation in decline. In a generation or two, most of these intolerant voices will be gone. By then, the military will have adjusted to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell with little difficulty, and we will be a stronger country. As President Obama reminded us this week, “For more than two centuries, we have worked to extend America’s promise to all our citizens. Our armed forces have been both a mirror and a catalyst of that progress, and our troops, including gays and lesbians, have given their lives to defend the freedoms and liberties that we cherish as Americans.”

As we struggle with the many challenges and issues confronting the country; as we debate the proper means of countering the threat of terrorism and the merits of our continued presence in Afghanistan; as we seek political and economic solutions to increasing poverty and unemployment at home, we can as Americans at least be proud that, by ending the shameful legacy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, we have appealed to the better angels of our nature and have upheld the founding ideals of our nation.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Mrs. Ellis and the Power of Teaching

One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child. -- Carl Jung

Walking along the Horsham bike path the other day, I admired the fullness of the tall, green stalks enveloping the corn fields, standing tall and upright as they reached for the heavens.  For a few days last week, the air turned brisk and a cool breeze whisked in from the north, the distant white clouds gliding along the bright blue expanse of the horizon.  As autumn beckons, when hot August nights traverse into cool September mornings, life feels fresh and new again. As I listened to the Hatboro-Horsham High School marching band practice in the distance, the drum cadences dictating a rhythmic precision, I was reminded again of life as a young man, before September became just another month, when the end of summer marked the start of a new school year.

Although the venues change and classmates come and go, the steady march of time passes through the generations as youthful endeavors forever recede into eternity.  For nearly two decades now, September has promised my two daughters each a new beginning as well – new classes and teachers, new friends, and the hope for new experiences.  As they enter their senior years, one in college, the other high school, the promise of a fresh start continues to endure and rejuvenate.

I still remember my first day of school in September 1964, my stainless steel lunchbox in hand as I waited nervously at the bus stop on the corner of Parry Drive and Cooper Avenue in Moorestown, New Jersey.  Although I tried to appear brave, the butterflies in my stomach betrayed any sense of coolness as the mysteries of kindergarten awaited me a mile-and-a-half away.  I survived, of course, and quickly adapted to the rhythm of school.  I remember little else about that first year, though, other than half days filled with simple arithmetic, snack time, recreation time, and nap time.  Kindergarten was but a weigh station to first and second grade, when the real work would begin, and life would be forever altered by the ability to read and a desire to learn.

Recently, I happened across a picture of my second grade class at South Valley Elementary School taken in the spring of 1967, when I was eight years old and possessed a devilish innocence that bespoke an eternal, if reticent optimism.  Though the faces are familiar, I remember few names and can only wonder where my classmates are today, where the paths of life have taken them, how history and experience have affected them.  Not surprisingly, the person I remember most vividly is my teacher, Mrs. Ellis.  A kind, warm, African American woman of grace and stature, she taught us during the two formidable years of first and second grade.  It was Mrs. Ellis who taught us to read, to multiply and divide, to follow directions, and to think for ourselves.  She was one of the best teachers I have ever had, a dedicated public servant who represents everything that is good and decent about America and the value of education.

Mrs. Ellis understood instinctively the words of President John F. Kennedy, that education was “the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength of the nation."  Mrs. Ellis did not merely teach us to read and write, add and subtract – though these she did quite well – she developed our young minds and helped us mature and to feel valued as human beings.  She inspired us to want to learn, to want to achieve, work hard, and improve our lives.

I especially appreciate a good teacher, because in the United States, at least, the teaching profession has always been undervalued.  “Modern cynics and skeptics,” said President Kennedy, “see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.”  A half-century later, little has changed.  When a hedge fund manager makes more money in a week than a schoolteacher makes in a lifetime, there is something wrong with the world.  Someday, when we are past our prime and looking back on life, when our children are older and beyond the need of a parent’s advice, it will not matter what kind of house we live in, or car we drive, or how many stock dividends we claim on our tax returns each year.  What will matter is how we influenced the lives of others and whether we left the world a better place than when we entered.  Mrs. Ellis has long since passed that test. 

"It is not what is poured into a student that counts,” said Linda Conway, “but what is planted."  Mrs. Ellis was the gardener of my early education, planting the seeds that helped make me what I am today. Her influence over my young and developing mind was real and magical.  “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist,” said John Steinbeck, “and that there are as few as there are any other great artists.”  Mrs. Ellis was a true artist indeed.

I have been blessed with many outstanding teachers and professors in my lifetime, but Mrs. Ellis will always be special, for it was under her guidance I learned to read, to write, and to embark on a journey of the human mind and spirit.  Today, when I read a good book or write something of substance, I think of Mrs. Ellis. Looking now at the above photograph (I am in the front row, fourth from the left), I am in awe of this group of naive, innocent, wide eyed children, full of life and dreams and limitless possibility.  An all-white class taught by a positive, uplifting black woman, we were oblivious to the civil rights movement and not cognizant of the many inequities and injustices of life.  And yet, fully enraptured by this vibrant, strong, kind woman who led, taught, molded, and cared for us as if we were her own children, we knew we were in good hands, secure in the knowledge that if we tried and failed, if we fell down along the way, Mrs. Ellis would be there to help us to our feet and to try again. 

“None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps,” Thurgood Marshall once said. “We got here because somebody (a parent, a teacher . . .  or a few nuns) bent down and helped us pick up our boots.” When we think back on the teachers and mentors of our lives, we especially appreciate the effective ones, those whose influence left a permanent mark.  But it is the few who touched our humanity that we remember with deepest gratitude.  Here’s to you, Mrs. Ellis, and to all the great teachers past and present.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Some Thoughts on Faith, Politics and the Christian Divide

Conventional wisdom teaches that one should never discuss religion and politics in polite company. I have never quite understood this, as I believe human interaction is at its best when people are not afraid to reveal themselves, when we are open to civil discourse and healthy give-and-take on matters of substance. Besides, the weather has never been all that interesting to me. But perhaps this is why I am not invited to many dinner parties.

It is true that mixing faith and politics often results in confusion and misunderstanding. Secular liberals immediately suspect encroachment of the wall separating church and state, failing to distinguish the many varied avenues upon which people approach politics from a faith perspective. They often assume that the only people who mix politics with religion are members of the Christian Right, a group which unfortunately excels at shoving rigid, narrowly-defined views of morality down everyone’s throats. And yet, while conservative Christians have effectively mastered the art of mixing religion in the public square, in my experience, growing up as I did in a mainline protestant denomination, it was often conservatives who complained of “liberal” preachers crossing an invisible line. “Reverend,” the conservative critic would say, “just deal with God and the Bible and keep politics out of the pulpit.”

In reality, most people who complain of mixing religion with politics simply do not agree with the message. When liberal preachers threaten the status quo by speaking prophetically on issues of economic justice and the biblical mandate of caring for the least valued members of society, it can threaten a congregation’s way of life, challenging them in ways that might require a loss in power, money or status. As Robin Meyers, a United Church of Christ pastor, wrote in Saving Jesus from the Church (Harper One, 2009), “Not all preaching can be a healing balm. If we are true to the gospel, some of it will disturb, disorient, and even distress listeners.”

On the other hand, secularists and liberals often criticize conservative preachers when they attempt to influence public policy, however misguided (and biblically incorrect) their positions may be. My problem with the Religious Right is not that it engages in faith-based advocacy, for this is a healthy part of our democracy essential to a vibrant discourse in the public square. My problem is that these so-called Christian voices have a misguided view of Christianity; that what they claim as Christian values and principles are simply not consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus.

American culture and history is dominated by an ethos of individualism. It is perhaps our core cultural value, emphasizing individual rights, individual choice and individual responsibility. We seem to avoid public appeals to the common good, believing concepts of collective effort and community responsibility are threats to freedom. We take pride that we are a nation of “self-made” individuals, people who have succeeded through individual initiative and hard work. This culture of individualism, however, fully embraced by the Religious Right, is often used to legitimate a political and economic system that maximizes rewards for individual “success” and ignores those who are not “successful.” In this line of thinking, we all get what we deserve. The rich are blessed by God; the poor, not so much.

Although individual responsibility is important, as Marcus Borg points out in The Heart of Christianity (Harper San Francisco, 2003), “none of us is really self-made. We also are the product of many factors beyond our control. These include genetic inheritance, affecting both health and intelligence; the family into which we’re born and our upbringing; the quality of education we receive; and a whole host of ‘accidents’ along life’s way – good breaks and bad breaks.” To believe that we all get what we deserve, or that our individual success is entirely attributable to our hard work and effort, “is to ignore the web of relationships and circumstances that shape our lives.”

Understanding that political and economic systems deeply affect people’s lives is crucial to understanding the Bible’s passion for justice. This is what is often missed by many conservative Christians, who fail to see that the essential message of Jesus was that of justice, compassion, and God’s love for humanity. In the Gospel of Mark, the synoptic gospel authored closest to when Jesus actually lived, Jesus spoke of establishing the “Kingdom of God,” a concept full of political meaning. At the time Jesus lived, “kingdom” referred to the dominant political systems of the day, systems ruled by powerful and wealthy elites. The Kingdom of God stood in stark contrast to the Kingdom of Herod and the Kingdom of Caesar. And while the Kingdom of God had both political and religious significance, it is clear that Jesus was speaking about what life would be like if God’s justice replaced the systemic injustice of the kingdoms and domination systems that were then in control. It is why Jesus had so much to say about justice in the here and now, and why his focus was on the poor, the sick, the outcast; why he emphasized love of neighbor and God’s unconditional love for all of humanity.

This is a concept often overlooked by many Christians today, perhaps because, as Marcus Borg has noted, the author of Matthew changed the term “Kingdom of God” to “Kingdom of heaven.” As Matthew was the synoptic gospel most widely read in churches through the centuries, generations of Christians heard Jesus speaking of the Kingdom of heaven, naturally assuming that he was speaking of the afterlife, not about God’s kingdom on earth. This also may explain in part why, in my experience, many Christians, certainly many within the Lutheran tradition, believe that the role of the Church is simply to care for the “inner" life of its members, to save souls and lead its members in prayer and worship. Many of these same Christians believe that the Church should stay silent about the “outer” life and issues confronting society, issues of politics, justice, war and peace. But as Catholic theologian John Dominic Crossan has quipped, “Heaven’s in great shape; earth is where the problems are.”

The American Christian community consists of an extremely diverse group of people, practices, and beliefs; the same schisms that divide society apply as well to the Christian faith. The media has made a habit of focusing on the outspoken voices of the Christian Right. But I have been far more influenced by a more compassionate brand of Christian clergy, including those who played a leading role in the civil rights struggles of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and who would later lead resistance to the Vietnam War. It was preachers like Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Moore, Jr., and William Sloane Coffin, among others, who spoke prophetically against racism, inequality, and injustice. While these pastors did not ignore the spiritual needs of their congregants, they were equally or more concerned with issues of justice. “A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man’s social conditions,” said King. “Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.”

Just as Jesus preached of the Kingdom of God here on earth, so, too, did King and Coffin and other activist preachers involve themselves in the here and now. These pastors realized that Christianity could be a force for good in the world – or a force for bad – depending upon how one viewed and applied Scripture. Their moral vision came straight from the life and teachings of Jesus, the historical, living, breathing Jesus portrayed in the Gospels, who led a ministry of service, healing, helping, liberation and forgiveness. Unfortunately, many Christians over the years have not shared this view of the Gospels, or have selectively chosen to ignore it.

As difficult as it is to believe today, there were a large number of “Christians” prior to the Civil War who contended that the Bible justified slavery. Of course, if one believed that the Bible was the inerrant word of God, it is almost understandable. After all, Leviticus 25:44-45; Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-25 and 4:1; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Peter 2:18-19; and 1 Corinthians 7:20-24, each on their face condone, or at least acquiesce in the existence of slavery. It was not until the summer of 1995, 132 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, that the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest protestant denomination, apologized for the role it had played in the biblical justification of slavery in the United States. The apology recognized implicitly that those who owned slaves, and those who approved of slavery and racism and segregation, were often self-professed “Christians” who attended Church every Sunday, said grace before every meal, and believed that the Bible justified their racist views.

Fortunately, there were many Christians who understood that the Bible was not always to be taken literally, that it must be understood in its proper context and interpreted in a manner that captures the essential message of God’s unconditional love for humanity. These Christians fought slavery and saw it as morally abhorrent and contrary to the Gospels. The issue of slavery in fact stimulated a major theological debate about the nature of Scripture and its interpretation, a dispute that continues to this day about how the Bible ought to be read, interpreted and applied. English evangelists John Wesley and George Whitfield, among others, argued that the biblical texts used to justify slavery had been overruled by the New Testament principles of love and justice as exemplified by the life and teachings of Jesus. This message of justice, ethics, mercy, and compassion, which was also articulated by the Hebrew prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah, would form the basis for the antislavery movements of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The political battles in Washington and around the nation today make clear that there remain deep divisions between us, including on a spiritual level. The Christian Right continues to be dominated by biblical fundamentalists, who read the Bible unquestioningly, in a vacuum, outside of its historical and literary context. As a result, some on the right oppose the teaching of evolution in public schools, are skeptical of scientific findings on global warming, and oppose full and equal rights for gays and lesbians. Over the past few decades, the Religious Right has combined forces with the anti-tax and laissez-faire capitalist crowd, opposing any and all government policies aimed at lessening the burdens of poverty and unemployment, protecting the environment, or of providing universal access to health care. I am at a loss to identify a biblical mandate for a philosophy of individualism and self-interest. I certainly cannot reconcile such positions with the teachings of Jesus.

I understand, of course, that there may be no Christian answer to complicated matters of public policy, but there are certainly moral, ethical and spiritual values that should inform how Christians think about and address these questions. Much of Jesus’s ministry was about hands on service to those in need – healing the sick, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry. But underlying all of his teachings was the pursuit of an all-encompassing justice, that by bearing witness to God’s unconditional love for all of humanity, we may heal and repair a broken world.

For me, Christian advocacy involves giving voice to those on the fringes, the forgotten people who lack money and power, the starving populations of sub-Saharan Africa, the plight of the unemployed, the poor and homeless in our inner cities. It involves challenging the existing power structures, the government, corporations, the military-industrial complex, and the news media to correct injustices. If the Church does not speak prophetically on these matters, then what right does it have to speak with authority on personal issues of morality?

Many on the left and right of the political (and theological) spectrum are often blinded by ideological differences and pre-determined political leanings. How and in what manner we raise taxes, spend federal and state dollars, interact with other nations, protect the environment and grow the economy are complicated issues. Jesus may not have spoken to the precise issues we confront today, and the Bible may not address them precisely. But to Christians I would ask, in what manner does the essence of the Christian faith speak to these issues? Were not the life and teachings of Jesus intently focused on correcting injustice? Does not the Christian faith command its followers to reject complacency and attempt to change conditions for the better?

In her lifetime, Dorothy Day, a Catholic layperson, was considered one of the leading examples of contemporary Catholic activism. A pacifist and a tireless advocate for the poor, she was the founder of The Catholic Worker, a loose collection of houses of hospitality, communal farms, and newspapers that sought to reform society consistent with her vision of Christian justice and compassion. “Whatever I had read as a child about the saints had thrilled me,” Day once wrote, “I could see the nobility of giving one’s life for the sick, the maimed, the leper.” But even as a child, she asked, “Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place? . . . Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?” For Day, her Christian faith demanded that she work to improve the lot of humankind.

What we would like to do is change the world – make it a little simpler for people to clothe and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the poor, of the destitute, we can to a certain extent change the world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world.
Perhaps President Obama put it best when reflecting personally on his faith in 2010: “[W]hat we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people, and do our best to help them find their own grace.”