samedi, août 22, 2009

Something nice to say?

When I first got this commentary from a colleague, I thought it was going to be about how Mr. Bates of the Guardian lost his faith. But, as it happens, the former religion reporter doesn't seem to have had much to lose.

What he does point out, and what I find so disturbing about many battles fought within Christendom, is how nasty we are to each other. Is that perhaps an unforeseen consequence of our post-Constantinian sense of privilege and establishment?

Who wants to be a part of a group where the members are urged to behave with charity and act like they hate one another?

That being said, abandoning core values in an attempt to make ourselves appealing in a pluralistic and often pagan culture has little integrity.

So where is the middle ground? Does it begin with acknowledging the elephants in our sanctuaries? The high incidence of divorce and abortion among conservative Christians might be a good place to begin. How about our lack of generosity? What about the ways in which we look all too similar to the materialist culture in which we are marinated?

Perhaps, if we invited the skeptical into discussion with us from a place of humility before God, they'd be less likely to be contemptuous -- or worse still, indifferent. As long as we continue to snap and snipe at one another, we are like the grouch at the party that everyone wants to avoid.
If you have something nice to say...don't sit by him.

mercredi, août 19, 2009

Saturday's column on prayer

Reflecting on prayer, government

Are religion and politics ever good bedfellows?I have to admit that’s what I was wondering after I heard about the tempest that erupted in Harrisburg over a prayer as our legislators wrestled (and wrestle) with a budget impasse that has paralyzed local municipalities.The flap occurred when the policy of vetting the prayers that open House sessions to make sure that they didn’t cause offense (or a potential lawsuit) collided with Adams County pastor Gerry Stolzfoos’ desire to pray in the name of Jesus.

The policy was recently implemented because a guest clergyman gave a prayer so offensive to many members that they walked out, said House Speaker Keith McCall’s Chief of Staff Paul Parcells. “We ask them to give an interfaith, non-denominational prayer.”An avalanche of phone calls, e-mails and faxes hit McCall’s office.

Parcells says he’s still rather distressed by the hellfire and brimstone heaped upon McCall and his staff by talk show hosts, bloggers and outraged out-of-state e-mailers.‘The speaker is a pretty devout Catholic, but he doesn’t wear his religion on his sleeve,” said Parcells. “I’m really disappointed, as a Christian (and son of a Baptist preacher), about how many calls and letters we got.”

In the wake of the controversy, the policy of previewing the prayers was repealed — and Stoltzfoos was invited to open a Senate session with a prayer, which he did in late July.In the Senate, prospective “chaplains” are asked in a letter to provide an interfaith prayer that respects the religious diversity of members of the chamber, said Drew Crompton, legal counsel to Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati.“We’ve enjoyed the diversity and variety of different faiths,” said Crompton, who said that he found it meaningful when a Buddhist monk opened the session. Rarely are aspiring pray-ers rejected, although both an atheist and a Wiccan were “turned away” he added.

In some ways, prayer seems like an anomaly in chambers dedicated to secular concerns, with legislators who seek to govern an increasingly multicultural state in which many residents don’t self-identify with any particular faith.While Catholics still are the majority faith group in the state regularly attending worship, “unclaimed” Pennsylvanians (those without a known religious affiliation) outnumber them by more than a million, according to the 2000 Association of Religious Data Archives state membership report, with mainline and evangelical Protestants lagging far behind.

So why open with a prayer at all?Both Crompton and Parcells agreed that the prayer tradition was one very important factor. “Prayer for our members is a time of reflection and honoring tradition,” he commented. “It’s a short period of time, but a meaningful time.”I thought I’d ask a few members what those few moments at the beginning meant to them.

“I like a prayer to open the session for several reasons — most importantly a personal moment of reflection before starting ‘the business of the state’ — to contemplate a need to help and serve others,” said Sen. Mike Brubaker, whose district includes parts of both Chester and Lancaster counties.

“Believer or non-believer, part of the notion is that we are thoughtful about what we do, and it’s a time for recollection and reflection,” said state Rep. P. Michael Sturla.

Uneasy as I am when faith and politics, or pastors and politicians, get too chummy in public places, I came away from conversations with members and staffers convinced that there is a place for prayer on the legislative order of business.

It may be one of the few times when the legislature is in session that many members, tethered as they are to deadlines and cell phones and the exegencies of partisanship, get to reflect on what they are doing — and the personal faith, whether in God or in public virtue, that impels them.

America has a long history of dialogue and sometimes dispute between the claims of secular government and those of personal faith — which may be in part why the recent controversy aroused such strong feeling.

“It’s very difficult to protect prayer in a public setting, but I think we’ve done a good job,” said Parcells.

But will prayer resolve the budget crisis? I asked Crompton. “Maybe for some it will help resolve the budget impasse, and maybe not for others,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t want to overstate (its importance) or understate it.”

Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt if we prayed, too.

Should Justice Scalia receive communion?

As many of you know, I'm not a fan of the individualist, my body, my choice mentality so popular in America.

My point of view on the life ethics issues, although I sometimes disapprove of their tactics, conforms in most ways to that of U.S. Catholic bishops. When a politician flouts their anti-abortion teaching, some bishops speak out disapprovingly. Some have threatened to ban them from taking communion.

The politicians argue, more or less convincingly (to me) that they have an obligation to uphold laws with which they disagree. Some, of course, are pro-abortion-rights.

I wonder where conscience ends and legal obligation begins -- when you take the oath of office?

But I'm not a politician. And I'm not Catholic. So it would be unusual if they cared what I think.

Justice Antonin Scalia is, however, one of the court's most vocal Catholics. So when he publically opposes his spiritual leader, Pope Benedict, in his dissent in the SCOTUS decision to allow a new hearing for convicted murdererTroy Davis, will bishops criticize him in public?

Here's the quote many media outlets (the New York Times' Adam Liptak, in this case) are using to sum up the Scalia argument in Davis --

He went on to say that the federal courts would be powerless to assist Mr. Davis even if he could categorically establish his innocence.
“This court has never held,” Justice Scalia wrote, “that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.”

There's the letter of the law -- and then there is fundamental human decency. How can a person be passionate about unborn life -- and so callous about human life after birth?

But I doubt we'll have clergy chastising Scalia in their newspapers and pulpits.

After all, much of the American public, including many Catholics, supports the death penalty. It's harder to side with a convicted murderer (even if there's possible evidence of innocence) than an unborn child.

Besides, criticizing our courts...well, it's almost un-American...

But it would be wonderful if now and again, more than a handful of judges in U.S. courts stood up to defend those that our culture deems ugly, or frightening, or outcast -- urban blacks, hispanics, rural whites. In comparison, we facilitate death in our culture, rather than making it a harder choice. It's encouraging that in this case, Thomas and Scalia were the minority report.

It was especially ironic that a man who argued against precedent so many times should uphold it now.

Scalia and his "death panel" mentality articulate, sadly, a well-recognized view in American legal history. But the fact that he pushed the boundaries of the law (even if you prove your innocence, you are still dead) as well as the limits of Catholic doctrine should make someone take notice.

Round up the usual suspects.