19 August 2010

Americans! Can we please stop feeling sorry for ourselves?

Lots of sober commentary has already been devoted to the Muslim community center planned for the Ground Zero neighborhood in Manhattan, and specifically to the fake outrage directed against the project. I won't add much more, but, honestly, I'm sad and embarrassed and more than a little angry. From my vantage point in Eastern Europe (Klaipeda, Lithuania, at the moment), we Americans end up looking like a bunch of crybabies. The anti-community center activists cite the feelings of 9/11 victims (treated as a monolithic block, of course) while completely ignoring the feelings of a planetful of Muslim observers, not to mention anyone who admires American pluralism, or cherishes freedom of religion, the U.S. Bill of Rights, or other values that used to be considered worth dying for.

On the bus between Riga and Klaipeda I watched with disbelief a recorded NBC Nightly News broadcast. Reporting on the second day of President Obama's two successive days of comments on the community center, Mike Viqueira could not simply convey what the president said, but had to crank up the drama; whereas the president had commented accurately on his previous day's comments, the NBC correspondent delivered the echo-chamber analysis: "The president appeared to backtrack...." I had interpreted the second-day comment as an even more emphatic defense of First Amendment rights. Obama simply, and correctly, said that he had never specifically advocated that location, just the right to use it.

A few moments later in the broadcast, NBC's political commentator John Harwood, responding to the anchor's question about whether Obama's follow-up represented "damage control," said, "Certainly there's no political upside for the president in this...." There's no "political upside" in a public defense of a religion's right to build its facilities in any legal location?? CERTAINLY?

There is absolutely no political or civic "upside" in allowing the campaign of fake outrage to subvert due process and prevent the building of the community center. But it would be consistent with a pattern that was described in Tom Engelhardt's important book, The End of Victory Culture, a pattern embedded in American history that encourages us Americans to see ourselves as victims of ambush who are thereby entitled to strike out at the bad guys with righteous retribution--with violence, either rhetorical or actual.

My suggested guidelines for post-9/11 mental health:

1. Americans: grieve for those who died on 9/11/2001, including the dozens of Muslims who died. Arrange for a dignified and respectful monument. Your grief deserves respect but does not trump the the rights of others, nor should it become the center of a new cult of national self-pity.

2. Do you desire justice for the 9/11 culprits? Then find the guilty and their organization. Do not seek emotional satisfaction by indulging in guilt by association. Punishment without due process is not the American way.

3. Don't tell other people what their wisest course of action would be. Mind your own wisdom for a change.

4. Do you imagine that you are in a confrontation with another religious community? Then fight fair. Compare your community's best with their community's best. (I know, it's a lot more fun to compare your best with their worst, and many of your own most unsavory allies will cheer you on. But consider that your so-called enemies can play that exact same game, and in the ensuing struggle you will sabotage your own side's attractiveness, its moral authority, even its global outreach. Speaking for myself and many other Christians serving cross-culturally, thanks a lot!)

5. If you don't want to go to a Muslim-sponsored cultural center in Lower Manhattan, feel free to go somewhere else. As for myself, I look forward to visiting.

A "roundtable discussion" of the Muslim cultural center controversy. '...There isn’t such a thing as the sensitivities of 9/11 families. There are a lot of different 9/11 families, and there are not only 9/11 families who lost directly people, but there are 9/11 families who were forced out of their homes for years in the neighborhood. So, what do we mean by the "the feelings of 9/11 families"? These are abstractions used to actually stoke fear in the country.'

More on the controversy: look for some interesting reality checks revealing its artificiality in this article by the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz.

The "fear tax."

On a subject very close to my heart: "In search of a new framework for evangelism and mission." Teaser: 'Because of our theology and practice the Quaker perspective on mission has always been an alternative response to the more general "winning souls mentality" it is far more holistic and operates out of a conviction that God is already at work in our world, it is our job as the church not to bring God to the heathens but to find where God is already at work and participate in that work, call that work out, name it, and support it.'

New England Yearly Meeting's ends its jubilee-year sessions with a minute of sending forth/commission.

"On sacred ground"--'As the mother tenderly helped her daughter out of the stroller, my eye fell for the first time on the handwritten cardboard sign that the girl had been carrying. “I miss my dad,” it read. “He was deported.”'

"Dancing in the streets" of Moscow?

The LOLcat Bible.

Don't need to read politics into this song...unless you insist :))) "Nobody's Fault But Mine."


Bill Samuel said...

The minute from NEYM was beautiful. I don't know why some Friends asked to be recording as standing aside from it. One wonders whether the objection was to something in the minute or something they wanted added, or both. In any case, I have never thought the practice of recording names of those standing aside was in accord with Quaker principles of unity as the way of doing business. It seems to make it become something like a vote.

Johan Maurer said...

Bill--I share your dis-ease with minutes that record the names of those standing aside, but I've become somewhat reconciled to it.

I remember talking about this practice years ago with Gordon Browne, who was not in favor of it at all. His point (if I remember correctly) was something along the lines that such minutes weaken the community, exalting individual sensibilities over corporate discernment. If he was not in unity with a proposed decision, and had expressed his doubts, but felt no leading to stand decisively in opposition as the group seemed inclined to approve the minute, he simply kept quiet. His contribution had already been made (he felt), and the discernment process had weighed it and nevertheless was ready to proceed in the direction that he personally was not ready for. Gordon was always willing to grant that his individual discernment was not perfect.

I wonder if the inclusion of names of those "standing aside" happens in part because, although it is a relatively recent innovation in Quaker practice (is it?--I never saw it in my early years as a Friend), it has a sort of ancient quakerly feel to it.

Here's why I've grown a bit more comfortable with the practice of "standing aside." First of all, those who choose to request having their names recorded as "standing aside" may never have been part of a conversation about whether this practice is consistent with Quaker understanding of community. They are simply trying to find a way to have the community honor their discomfort at the same time that they in turn are agreeing not to block the community's evident will. So they are in fact being graceful rather than self-centered, using a mechanism that smells traditional, even if it isn't.

Secondly, future Friends historians may well be grateful for insights thus provided for the context of weighty decisions.

Finally, the practice of "standing aside" may paradoxically be a useful contemporary reminder that Friends process of finding the "sense of the meeting" does not demand literal unanimity. Occasionally, a faithful and trusted clerk may find a meeting to be in substantial unity and may record a minute as being approved even with objections, This can happen, for example, because the meeting has engaged in extended preparatory consultations on the matter, but those who have last-minute objections seem not to have seasoned the matter to the degree that others have. To offer to record the objections might be a way of extending grace to those whose objections have been noted but not found decisive, as well as a way of making the minute more truthful. We Friends sometimes use our traditions to smother conflict rather than reveal it--maybe acknowledging that the community arrived at a decision despite conflict and an imperfect unanimity could be a way of teaching that conflict is not the end of the world.

All the same, I hope that "standing aside" doesn't become a convenient way out of giving difficult decisions the patient effort required for genuine corporate discernment.

Jeremy Mott said...

I believe that traditionally, it was recorded that a number of Friends stood aside from a decision, but their names were not (and should not have been, in this case) recorded. Of course, Johan
is correct that to stand aside is an important step, and should not be taken lightly; it may often be better just to remain silent.
On occasion, too, one or more
Friends attempts to stand in the
way. This is a much stronger dissent than standing aside. It is
an attempt to block unity and thus block decision. I have seen cases, however, where the clerk ruled, with the assent of the meeting, that the meeting would over-ride those attempting to stand in the way. In these cases,
the names of those attempting to
stand in the way may be recorded.
All this is what I remember in
New York Yearly Meeting. Probably other yearly meetings do things
I too wonder what made a few
Friends feel that they should stand aside. That would be far
more important information than
their names. Does anyone know?
Jeremy Mott