As I discussed in a previous post, I recently moved to Austin Texas and started sampling some of the local community events here. This past week I attended my second meeting of the Austin Area Interreligious Ministries (AAIM). The meeting was organized as a collection of small table discussion groups. The topics for the evening were the Cordoba Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero in NY City, and how to respond to the fear of Islam surfacing in our society.
First, some general observations about the people I talked to there. Many of them were not presently part of any religious church or organization. They attended this interfaith dialogue because they felt a longing for the warmth and sharing that took place at an event like this. Several people mentioned that they viewed participating in this type of respectful interfaith dialogue as a very meaningful spiritual practice for them.
Many people felt that the emotional controversy over the Islamic Cultural Center is starting to wane. Any news story has a natural lifetime for remaining on the front pages before starting to fade from the public interest. This story, however, seemed fade away faster than one would expect given the strong emotions surrounding it. Why might that be happening?
AAIM Meeting in Austin
I recently moved from New York state to Austin Texas. So far, the people I’ve meet in Austin have done a very poor job of playing the roles depicted by the standard red state stereotypes. As an example, let me tell you about a recent interfaith event I attend here.
The Austin Area Interreligious Ministries (AAIM) organized an event to discuss the fear generated by the controversy over the Cordoba Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero in NYC. Most of the people at our discussion table proclaimed outrage that what is basically a zoning board decision for lower Manhattan has been turned into a national issue, and is being exploited for political (or ratings) gains by stoking the flames of fear and anger. “That is evil” stated a Jewish women at our table. Two Muslims who joined our conversation both agreed that the Islamic cultural center doesn’t actually qualify as a mosque by the traditional standards of that term.
There was no sign of fear of “the other” in that room, no sign of intolerance. To me, this is an example of religion at it’s best – bringing people together in a spirit of mutual respect and tollerance.
The leader of the AAIM, Tom Spencer, once asked an interfaith gathering what do all major religions have in common? One person yelled out “a belief in God”. Tom responded that Buddhism had no such belief, and it certainly counts as one of the world’s major religions. After some thought, the group agreed on the response “They try to make you a better person”. The evidence I saw in that room certainly supported the notion that, at least for these people, their religion did help make them better people.
The Coffee Party was established in January, 2010 by Annabel Park and Eric Byler. After becoming frustrated by the angry and disruptive tone that seemed to dominate so much of the political discussion lately, Annabel vented her frustration on her Facebook page. She argued that contrary to the impression given by the media coverage, the Tea Party was not representative of most Americans. After receiving significant support for her views, she started a “Join the Coffee Party Movement” fan page on Facebook. The goal of the movement was to promote civil and respectful public discussion of political issues and bring people together to work cooperatively for the common good. The group rapidly grew to over 150,000 in under six weeks, a growth rate much faster than the Tea Party movement. Since then it has received positive media coverage from the NY Times, CNN, Public Radio, and most other major news outlets.
When I first heard about the Coffee Party movement, it immediately struck a strong emotional chord with me. I originally joined the Network of Spiritual Progressives because of a longing to be part of a larger movement of people who came together to work in a civil and respectful manner for a better community, and to balance what I saw as the destructive and negative influences of the groups (secular and religious) that were promoting anger, divisiveness, and “pathological hyper-individualism”. For me, the Coffee Party was a secular appeal to many of the same things that motivated people to join the NSP.
There is an interesting article in the NY Times Ideas section today about Environmentalism as a Religion. It points out that environmentalism has the concept of guilt and sins (leaving the water running and the lights on), the righteous pleasures of being more orthodox (green) than your neighbor, and new heresies include failure to compost or refusal to go organic (I would add questioning global climate change). It has Satan figures (evil corporate chief executives), prophets (Al Gore), and even a belief in an imminent apocalypse if we don’t change our ways.
While the article points out that “environmentalism as a religion” is not a new idea, it does provide a nice short summary of the concept. To what extent is this idea true, and if so, is that a bad or good thing?
I recently came across a commentary written by the christian author Brian McLaren about the concept of economic recovery. He brings up some interesting questions about what we mean by the term “recovery”. When a drug addict hits rock bottom and starts on the path to recovery, we usually mean that this person is reforming their ways, learning from their past mistakes and moving forward to a better life without their former addiction. We don’t mean that they are trying to reestablish their more tolerable state of drug dependency similar to what they were experiencing a few months before hitting rock bottom.
Yet when we talk about economic recovery, there is disappointingly little talk in the national media about learning from our past mistakes and moving forward to a better life without the former addiction to the illusory phantom wealth from complex risky financial mechanisms, excessive debt,and unsustainable speculative bubbles. Instead, the goal of economic recovery seems to be to return to how things were a few years ago before the bubble bursts, plus or minus a few minor regulation changes. It has become a call to get back to our former addictive economic high without addressing the root problems with our addictions, with the hope that we won’t end up back in the gutter again next time. Brian McLaren goes on to discuss some of the addictions we need to face and recover from: material greed, weapons, carbon fuels, quick and easy answers, etc. This struck me as an interesting way to frame these discussions in the national debate.
by: Mike Ignatowski on December 19th, 2009 | Comments Off
Wind Turbines of Copenhagen by Daniel Greene
A few days ago Dave Belden asked us to “Imagine a time when the Eco-Crisis is Over: Then tell us How we Got There“.
There are two aspects of “how we got there” – a structural/legal one, and a cultural one. To look at the structural/legal one, it may be good to start by considering a quote from science fiction writer William Gibson, “The future is already here – it is just unevenly distributed”. Where can we look to find a society that is close to already achieving what Dave has asked us to consider?
Perhaps the best place to look is Scandinavia, which includes Denmark and its capital city Copenhagen. The city of Copenhagen is considered to be one of the most environmentally friendly cities in the world. Its carbon footprint per person is about half of that in the United States (details by country here), and yet its quality of life is ranked better than that in the United States by some measures. How do they do this? They have a strong national policy for long-term environmental planning, and they use taxes to adjust price incentives. Denmark has very high taxes on cars to discourage car ownership, and the highest home electricity prices in the world. They use some of this tax revenue to provide incentives to promote wind power and energy conservation.
But there’s also a cultural change that needs to happen – a change in attitudes.
During the health care debates many religious organizations chose to speak out not by endorsing any specific piece of legislation, but by endorsing some basic ethical principles that should be addressed by any legislation up for consideration. Typically, such principles included the goal of making affordable health care available to everyone, and making sure that such health care was not denied because of previously existing medical conditions. I think this was a very good and effective approach.
We have not yet had a similar major debate about economic reform in our country despite the recent economic crisis. Many people are starting to suspect that it won’t happen unless there is a grass roots movement to push for it. I believe that religious organizations should speak out on this issue too in a manner similar to their participation in the health care discussions. But what are the basic ethical principles of economic reform that should get wide support in the religious community? We’ve been having some discussions about this within my congregation and came up with some suggestions to get this started.
I attended Catholic Mass while visiting family members this weekend, and I was intrigued by the following statement from the pulpit - “this is the 33rd Sunday in ordinary time”. The phrase ordinary time as used here refers to a particular segment of the church calendar year (i.e. It’s not advent, lent, etc.). But it raised the bigger question about whether we’re living in “ordinary times” in a larger historical sense. Would we classify the last 6 months as an extraordinary time in history, or as more of an unremarkable ordinary time? Have we lived through a temporary lull this summer between recent storms of change, and what will come next? Perhaps. How would you classify the last half of this decade?
The people I discussed this with typically thought we were living in extraordinary times in general, and have been doing so for their entire life. That led to the humorous observation that we often believe an extraordinary period of human history began roughly at the time of our own birth. Such is human nature.
Such views are a characteristic of exponential rates of change. The most recent period of history will always seem to be experiencing much more substantial rates of change than previous times, and will therefore seem to be an extraordinary time. Make no mistake about it; we are living in a time of exponential growth, exponential rates of scientific and technological development, and perhaps exponential rates of social change as well. We are living in extraordinary times.
There is an important aspect of exponential curves that we cannot forget though. If they continue, the rate of change in the coming decades will be even greater than it is today. There is every reason to believe that this in fact will happen. So while we are living in extraordinary times compared to previous history, it is likely that the historical impact of the coming decades will be even more significant than what we’re experiencing now. This means that our “call to action” to engage in helping to direct positive change will continue to grow in importance.
During a meeting of the NYC Network of Spiritual Progressives group this week, the topic of discussion turned to economic reform. The original NSP “Covenant with America” dealt with this topic in a general way by promoting a new bottom line in our values system, and in a specific way by promoting the Social Responsibility Amendment for corporate behavior. The discussion at the meeting focused on our disappointment that very little has happened in terms of economic reforms as a result of this past year’s economic meltdown. In fact, some of us were wondering if this is a topic that we could legitimately express anger over. Fortunately, I’m beginning to see some indication that the momentum is finally starting to build for economic reform.
I went to my first “Tea Party” rally this past weekend in the city of Kingston in upstate New York . It was a small rally of about 200 people held on the same day as the big Tea Party rally in Washington DC. I went to watch, listen, and talk to some of the people there. Yes, I witnessed a good deal of anger and fear on display, with much of the anger directed at Obama. There was also a small counter protest of people holding up signs in favor of health care reform. I was pleasantly surprised to see a few people from each side willing to cross over and have conversations with each other. I’ve always been a strong proponent of the need for such civil conversations and I joined in a few of them. It soon became apparent, though, that most people needed some training and practice at having such conversations. The participants generally approached the interactions with the intent of scoring as many debate points as possible on every topic that came up. The discussions usually degenerated into emotional arguments with neither side really listening to the other. To hold civil discussions with people you strongly disagree with, my experience suggests that you need to take an alternative approach. If I may make some suggestions…