Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Posts Tagged ‘integrity’

Shall we gather at the DC mall?

Posted by John Montgomery on October 3, 2010

I’ve been singing, “shall we gather at the river” all weekend long. Words like the Potomac or mall or memorial or DC don’t quite fit the rhythm, but I am still working on it. For the last week this question has been the subject of intensely active conversation by social networkers on United Methodist Communication’s Facebook page (The United Methodist Church). It is a conversation that is a bit bizzare.  If one was checking that page to learn about World Communion Sunday, one would be quite surprised by what was there to be found.

This facebook discussion had been occasioned mainly by the NYT article that mentioned (wrongly) that GBCS was a sponsor of the upcoming  One Nation Working Together march that was held yesterday, Saturday, October 2, 2010.

Much of the passionate, but confused rhetoric in the comments came because the NYT article failed to make a distinction between endorsing an event, i.e. inviting one’s associates to participate and sponsoring an event, i.e. engaging in the planning and financing of the agenda. When one looks at the broad list of 400 or so endorsers, the presence of  socialist and communist groups (don’t leave out unions and gay groups) associated with the program catalyzed anger that blew the cover off the pot and rant after rant followed as it boiled over.  

The other part of the problem is that the NYT portrayed this march as a counter-demonstration to Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor gathering last month. As far as I can tell, the march was originally proposed before the Beck event was planned and it was to focus on the sort of DC standstill regarding progressive issues like employment and health care. 

I know we have tea-party Methodists, but in these conversations, their imitation of Glenn Beck is staggering. Since UMC tea-party activists can’t seem to make distinctions between anybody to the left of right wing, you can tell where the discussion went.

This is not to suggest that the original intent of the rally did not change. The opening talk by MSNBC’s Ed Schultz signaled with no ambiguity the event’s new face: in the end it became a rally to get out the votes for Democrats on November 2. NCAAP President Jealous’ statement with its denigration of Beck followers saying that “we” are the antidote to Beck and the tea-party did not tone down the offense.

Anticipating these developments, this past Friday as Jim Winkler announced that while GBGS stood by the rally’s original goals and concerns, partison statements made recently by the original sponsors signaled that the agenda had shifted and GBGS withdrew its endorsement.

In the end, Winkler’s statement was carefully written and I have come to believe exactly the decision that was needed. Finally, Saturday was what it was – four whole hours. Now it is over.

But for me, what also remains to be watched is the apparent deepening of the polarization of our public debate and its impact on conversation in our church. In his statement, Winkler noted the increasing lack of civil discourse within the United States.

Perhaps more troubling, discourse within The United Methodist Church has taken on a very un-Christ-like tone.  E-mails and phone calls made to the board by clergy and laity have been shocking in their vitriol.

Winkler’s off-hand report that clergy are participating is quite scary to me.

In fact, my immediate response was critical:

With all respect, this feels like GBCS has been bullied into this decision. While I know that some of those groups who were on the larger list are controversial and partisan, doesn’t that go with the territory. On the larger United Methodist Church page, progressive Christians like me have been subjected to vitriolic nonsense and I am now sure that these tea-party commentators are going to celebrate because they put the church leaders in their place. GBCS has pioneered in these matters. Let’s not lose our nerve now.

I need not share the bullying comments. You can imagine – the attack on social justice as the Marxist redistribution of wealth, the suggestion that people ought to read the Bible (something that I assume is already true), Spong-like heresy, can’t speak for the church as a whole, etc. If you really enjoy this stuff, it goes on for pages.

But, the more I have thought about it, I want to be careful and not challenge the integrity of the GBGS staff. They have seen this before and I take it that the timing had to do with more than submitting to pressure.

So should we gather at the river?

It seems to me that if I was going to stand on the Mall to witness against Beck and his followers, I would go to a qualitatively different event…like Jon Stewart’s Take Back Sanity. We didn’t need a pissing contest this weekend. The timing of this move did not stop the debate, but simply reset it and frankly sides just started talking past each other again. The question becomes not how we can yell louder, but what we might do to occasion the transformation of such defiant despair.

My next post will seek to address the question of why Jon Stewart’s satire might help. The answer is found in Kiergegaard and Sartre and a late night discussion in University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library back in the 80s with my M.Div. colleagues.


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Lord, Save Us From Your Followers

Posted by John Montgomery on September 28, 2009

16-Photograph-of-Dan-MerchantThis past Friday a new documentary has been released in public theatres, available in only a few markets.There is a DVD that has been out for some time now as well as a book.  I first became aware of the movie through a Christianity Today review that a friend sent me. Having discovered that it was showing just down the street, I attended. The following comments are very first draft reflections.

It is no surprise that this documentary has won award after award. Dan Merchant has created a remarkable cinematic effort. He has woven together disparate elements into an intriguing montage that engages, fascinates and delights those who watch. Merchant uses  media clips, talking heads, and several recurring interviews with the likes of Tony Compola, Rick Santorum, Rick Warren, Bono and even Al Franken. He has extended narrative episodes including mission trips to Mississippi after Katrina, World Vision tours of Ethiopia, culture wars confrontations in San Francisco, borrowed TV game show experiments, much more.

All of this is held together with transitions that make my power point fades look childish and the suit that turns Merchant into a walking bumper sticker occasioning short “on the street” encounters is brilliant.

The one place it could have worked better has been noted by reviewers, while very interesting, the awkward animations format just didn’t quite fit.

USA Today suggested that what we had was a cross between Monty Python and Michael Moore – an apt description. The movie is packed full, but Merchant’s wit and honesty keeps it moving forward far better than the absurdity of Python or the cynicism of Moore. It is time well spent.

For a teaser, do check out the preview on the following site – Lord, save Us From Your Followers.

Dan Merchant is disturbed by the intensity of dissonance experienced between the political left and religious right on a variety of related public issues. The sub-title of the movie, Why is the Gospel of Love dividing America, may ring more true than the main title.

I am reminded that this is particularly an American issue. Anglican evangelical theologian NT Wright, in his recent collaboration with Marcus Borg, speaks about how the public discourse in our country contrasts with almost everywhere else. Everyone wants to choose sides and marginalize the other. We seek a false victory where one side wins, but in a sense everybody loses.

Tony Campola notes in one interview segment, “Do you realize what you are doing when you frame the discussion in such an antagonistic, polarizing, hateful manner? A movement can exist without a god, but never without a devil, there has to be an enemy to be destroyed.”

In contrast, as one reviewer noted “the central thrust [of the documentary] is looking at how the Church and Christianity [might] be viewed [by others] if they did one simple thing, act like Jesus.”

Now Dan Merchant is certainly not a pacifist in the so-called culture wars? But I think it is fair to say that he might see the present conflict between Christian believers and post-modern (post-Christian) cultures as failing to meet “just war” criteria and thus behoove us to look for other patterns of engagement. While his documentary does not directly broach the issue in those terms, Merchant is certainly seeking an alternative approach to the constant conflict that seems to create more chaos than widely promote the gospel

Again, I want to be careful as I am using categories to analyze themes in the movie that Merchant does not use. Nowhere is just war criteria mentioned, but I don’t think it is inappropriate to reflect on some of the values they represent in a time of conflict.

While the documentary speaks a lot about confrontation, actually many of the episodes deal indirectly with that issue. But early on, Merchant travels to San Francisco for the Battle Cry gathering of youth and young adults founded by evangelist Ron Luce. The Battle Cry movement seeks to recruit new warriors for the cultural war. Luce preaches that our country is in trouble, Mass media culture, so influential in the lives of our young people, has transformed our once honored understanding of ourselves as a Christian nation into a culture that opposes Christianity. I’ll leave the debate about whether we were a Christian nation to others.

Luce argues that the time has come to make a stand and in fact, a group of young people tried to give witness by staging a protest event on the steps of the San Francisco City Hall.

There is disturbing footage of the confrontation between counter-demonstrators, citizens who in many ways consider City Hall, the site of numerous gay marriages, sacred space and Luce’s “youth for Christ.”

“Christians go home,” the crowd chanted. Not cowed, Luce brought his followers back for a second year.

Merchant does an extended interview with Sister Mary Timothy Simplicity, a cross-dressing nun, a member of the infamous Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The steps of the city hall building carry special meaning for Sister Mary Timothy for she witnesses that two years prior to this fractious encounter, he and her husband exchanged vows of marriage. What struck me in the interview was that in addition to the pride expressed in the passion behind the counter-demonstration, he found herself also appalled that “they were yelling at CHILDREN.” I am reminded of the statement dating from Vietnam era that the village was destroyed in order to save it.

Just War ethics require that collateral damage be avoided as much as possible even if the cause itself is moral. The consequences of the culture wars seems to me to harm our most vulnerable. Maybe, Christians should not participate.

Tangent: Some attending the movie might find the Sisters outrageous. They are – San Francisco is an outrageous place. Nevertheless, you might find the following statement from their website informative.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence® is a leading-edge Order of queer nuns. Since our first appearance in San Francisco on Easter Sunday, 1979, the Sisters have devoted ourselves to community service, ministry and outreach to those on the edges, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment. We believe all people have a right to express their unique joy and beauty and we use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency and guilt that chain the human spirit.

Not surprising, in a movie about the “culture wars” the division over GLBTQ issues comes up more than once in the documentary. In terms of collateral damage, Tony Compola tells a heart rendering story from his high school years. In his class, there was a young man who Tony indicates was “outed” and became the subject of constant bullying. Compola tells of the day when five of the young man’s fellow students dragged the youth into the corner of the showers and urinated on their victim. Tony was not present. That evening, the young man hanged himself seeking release from the constant terror. Tony talks about how he wished that he were there and that some how he could have been a friend.

In terms of this issue, public bickering leads so easy to unintended collateral damage. Statistics are frightening at how vulnerable our GLTBQ youth are and how at risk they are of suicide.

Proportionality is another just war value. Merchant has a distinct sense of wit that has the capacity to put things in perspective. In an episode, shot in St. Paul, MN he explores events surrounding the removal of the Easter Bunny from public space.

Oh, we are under attack! Attack back.

With a certain delight, Merchant tells not of angry demonstrations, but a kind of “do it yourself” shrine that grew up at the place where the Easter Bunny previously stood. One morning a box of “Peeps” appeared. First one, then another and so forth. The point had been made.

In a conversation with one of the more strident proponents of a secularized public square, Merchant pointed out that they should also change the city’s name – I mean St. Paul is named after St. Paul, right. Then in a dance around absurdity, the conversation moves to St. Louis, St. Charles, St. Augustine, you get the point. Are our tactics proportional to the real enemy? Perhaps, as Christians, we have met the enemy, and it is us.

Merchant’s jumpsuit covered with bumper stickers and car magnets becomes a lesson in point. First, we have the traditional Christian fish, with the Greek letters standing for Jesus, Christ , Son of God. Of course, that morphed into a fish with stubbie legs touting not Christ, but Darwin. A fish emblazoned with the word “truth,” was then produced eating Darwin. But of course, along came a dinosaur that swallowed the “truth.”

Speaking of Jesus as the Son of God becomes the basis of a tale told by Al Franken. Apparently at one event recently, he was asked whether he believed that Jesus was the Son of God. Franken, a practicing Jew answered that he did not believe that Christian doctrine. About 10 folks gathered around anxiously awaiting the next step in the conversation and perhaps some comedy. Franken then spoke about how, if we might understand that people can see God in all of us, them it might be appropriate to then talk about us all as  Sons (and daughters) of God. Franken witnesses that most of the group nodded their heads saying that that is an interesting take on the notion. However, one man walked away stridently telling him that he was going to hell.

Not sure this is the best of theology, but the encounter may indicate that if we listen to each other rather than beat each other over the head with slogans, we might find that the “culture wars” are not as real as some make them out to be.

In a reflective essay like this, I can only touch on a small part of what can be found in the movie.   In his documentary, Merchant’s work begins to evolve beyond reporting on the conflict defined by one reviewer as the “absence of real dialogue, real listening and real conversation among those who claim to be followers of Jesus and his message of healing love and forgiveness.” The ensuing message (and from my point of view Merchant’s vision of hope)  then changes from conflict to looking at how (as mentioned above) the Church and Christianity might be viewed if they did one simple thing, act like Jesus.” [my emphasis]

Merchant gives us several examples.of what this might look like as he closes his movie. There is the report documenting various mission trips helping with recovery efforts in Mississippi after Katrina. There are the deeply moving scenes of ordinary Christians sharing their lives with homeless people in Portland. I was stunned by the discussion of “foot washing” and the recognition of the vulnerability that must be shared between the one who is washing and the one whose feet are washed. There are allusions to Nelson Mandela and the South African efforts at reconciliation.

In what for many might be seen as the most provocative episode in the movie, (Yes, there are provocative scenes!)  a confession booth is set up as part of the Portland Pride event. We should note that to encourage the curious one sign by the booth asks people to be in a movie. But the booth is recognizable for what it is. The tactic is not original, but borrowed from the book, Blue Like Jazz and comes from a similar effort first done at Reed College.

Once inside the confession booth, the process is turned upside down and Merchant speaks first, apologizing for the church’s homophobia, its silence, its hate, and most importantly his personal participation. I should add that this doesn’t come from some other planet, for one of the earlier news clips celebrates the ministry of Pope John the 23rd and the Vatican Council where he apologized for the church’s participation in the Shoah.

Though the confessional has a wall, the wall falls. Disparate worlds are no longer seen as camps to defend, but places to learn from each other and in that context perhaps understand the gospel better.

Obviously, I found the movie helpful, deeply inspiring and when possible a conversation starter.
The audience at the showing I attended was essentially me and a church group from down the street. Folloowing the movie, the church group adjourned to Starbucks to continue the discussion. I regret that I did not have to courage to invite myself to their conversation.

Having said that, it is a conversation starter not the end of the discussion. A recent commentator on the health care debate urged that we, all of us, must learn to see that those we disagree with are not the enemy. But because we all live in our own bubbles, it is sometimes very difficult to see the larger world in which we all exist. Now there are fringe elements who still fight, turn small issues into big concerns, cause much too much collateral damage. I’m reminded of the old phrase from the 60s, “what if someone gave a a war, and the Christians on both sides simply didn’t come.”

Sometimes, we might find that even though those who do not identify themselves as Christians still share common concerns. There is wonderful footage of World Vision projects in Ethiopia where those who think they live in different bubbles find a unity that was always there if we listened to each other, a unity found less in words but in shared tasks like whisking flies out of refugee children’s eyes.

Nevertheless, I did not see myself in the movie. The map of the battle lines only shows a portion of the larger territory. This is a movie about Evangelicals and how they might not divide America. I’m not sure that there are many hard core atheists in the cast of characters. There are lots of Christians who have left because they could not stand the hypocrisy. There are lots who have found the invitation not really inviting and so they wait for something more. There are some who have been forced out and have had to find their own safe space, for there was none in the local congregations that they left.

How might the Church and Christianity be viewed if they did one simple thing, act like Jesus?

But again, I am not in this cast of characters and the places I am tempted to marginalize people are different. I am not an evangelical, never was tempted to be one. All of our faith traditions are found under a much bigger tent than we imagine. I’m not saying that personal change is not important, but the focus of my faith journey is traditionally on social change. There is no General Board of Church and Society in this movie. For me, while visits to homelsss people on the streets is important, conferences with Senators and Representatives are important as well.

These are thorny issues. Tony Compola may feel called to build relationships with his gay fellow students, but for me Tony has not taken the steps necessary to build social structures that guarantee social change beyond individual relationships. It’s Tony’s wife who has it right on means of inclusion. In similar fashion, Rick Santorum and Rick Warren who come off in this movie as holding reasonable points of view occasion skepticism for me – we have got a lot of talking to do. The issue of abortion rights is noticeably absent.

In the movie, Al Franken is the token Jew. There are no Hindu, Muslims, Mormans, Buddhists, Native Americans. But these are people who I must learn to relate to every day.

Given the ugly misstatements by culture war commanders like Tony Perkins concerning last Fridays Muslim time of prayer on the Capitol grounds, these questions loom even larger than the movie suggests. Sadly, I’m not sure that the 50,000 worshipers got much attention in the news. Issues of Multi-faith dialogue are not addressed by Merchant.

I loved the movie! We have a lot of talking to do. It deserves all the awards it got, but more importantly this movie gives us some clues about how to carry out that much needed conversation.


Looking for some fun – Drop in to our virtual coffee house – The New 12th Gate

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Integrity Still Counts

Posted by John Montgomery on July 30, 2009


I am sure there is some Bible verse somewhere that I could quote – something about giving up to temptation. But, I will pass.

Michael Phelps has been in the news again lately – his first world competition since his amazing performance on the global stage in the Beijing Olympics and since the lifting of his suspension from competition for being photographed with a Bong.

The headlines have taunted Michael’s loss in the 200 freestyle to young German swimmer, Paul Biedermann who Phelps had beaten by 4 seconds in China. “Is this a sign of Phelp’s inevitable decline?” the stories asked. I think not – instead it is a sign of character, and I am grateful in a world of sports where doping and other questionable practices are rampant, that Michael demonstrated an important lesson in integrity.

Over the years, my youngest has had the opportunity to swim against Michael. Matt almost even beat him when they were 10 years old. I’ve had the chance to watch Michael mature in those years and I have always respected him for his kindness, humor and resolve. Matt had the chance to watch Michael as well over the years, watch him grow and grow, not just in height, but in wing span. Adolescence brought Matt all the way to 5’8″. He has a great kick, but every flip turn leaves him half a body length behind. Two years ago, after finishing his college career, he became a coach. a pretty good one I hear.

Of course, the story behind the story of Michael’s loss, not just a race, but a record had to do with the suit that Biedermann (and several others) wore. These new suits are made with polyurethane and provide special buoyancy that enhances speed. These newfangled  suits have torn the sport of swimming apart, with the international governing body FINA promising that they will be banned shortly in the next year. However, at this year’s world championships being held in Rome at the Foro Italico outdoor pool, records are regularly falling. One of the decisions that FINA will have to make is whether these new world records should have an asterick next to the published times.

Swim suits are strange. Most parents of male swimmers remember nervously back to the first time their son tried on a Speedo, a suit that they themselves would have never been caught dead in! Over the years came jammers, knee length suits that nowadays avoid the embarassment of young kids being so exposed. Of course, there are different versions of the full-body suit that have been around for years.

Michael generally wears the Speedo  LZR racer and part of why I speak of the intergrity of his decision has to do with staying with his sponsor company. It is reported that other swimmers chose to wear the new suits, but then covered-up the logo. Speedo has certainly been good to Michael. After his performance in Beijing, Michael got a million dollar bonus. Still, it seems to me, that his decision to stay with Speedo represents not just an unwillingness to compromise simply based his own narrow self-interest, but a kind of affirmation of loyalty that is hard to come by these days.

But, it seems to me that there is more. The NYT article missed the point by reporting that Michael switched suits for the 200 fly. However, he still wore a LZR racer, just one that kept his upper body free. That is not uncommon for the butterfly races. I might add that latest reports note that Michael not only won that particular race but set a new world record.

Michael’s coach, Bob Bowman, concerned about the questionable new records, had threatened that Michael will not compete in international competition until these issues are resolved. Bowman and I have argued on deck more than once, but I think he is absolutely right this time around. Apparently the threat has shaken up more than a few international officials and my guess is that this will be resolved sooner than later.

It is at this point that the real question of integrity emerges. Swimming is a great sport. Now my boys did play little league and my older son Tim ran cross country. But I have always loved swimming. First, because it is co-ed and before adolescence sets in, the girls generally beat the boys – kind of a humbling lesson that I believe has stayed with my sons occasioning a sort of respect for gender differences not necessarily taught in other sports.

Second, because swimming is not a contact sport, i.e. as long as you stay in your own lane, your true competition is yourself. Coaches repeatedly set goals that don’t have to do with winning, but have to do with beating your personal best time. Everybody can be a winner at swimming.

In our county summer league championships, for the last couple of years, the opening heat in the first race has been reserved for several of the kids who compete in spite of  their disabilities. None of these kids could make the qualifying times to swim in the regular heats. but as the race finishes, the cheers are deafening, the crowd is on its feet recognizing that in their own way these kids have accomplished just as much as Michael did in Beijing.

There used to be a Coke commercial – I think it was Coke – after all I am in Atlanta. It said, “be all that you can be.” Frankly, I thnk that John Wesley would have found it an interesting slogan – something to do with sanctification and going on to perfection – perfection not only in your loving relationship to the neighbor, but also in how one loves one’s own self.

I think the new swim suits cross the line – so did Michael. He is reported to have said to Biedermann that he looks forward to a rematch next year in jammers! The temptation here is not to be all that you can be, but be more that you are able to be.

One last story. My older son, Timothy broke the 11-12 year old state record for the 50 back stroke several years ago. It was a record that had stayed around in Georgia for some 15 years. This was Tim’s last meet swimming in that age group. Two days later, he had graduated to the 13-14 year old classification. In the next meet, Tim’s training partner, Peter Marshall who was one month younger than Tim and eventually has held several world records broke Tim’s new record by .01 of a second! Tim never got his name in the record book.

That was disappointing, but what I remember most vividly was the fact that as Peter finished the race and started to climb out of the pool, Tim was there shaking his hand and congratulating him.

Being the best that you can be – now that’s something and Michael has my respect not because of all of his medals, but because of his integrity.

Breaking News: Today NYT is reporting that FINA has ruled that polyurethane suits will be banned as of Janurary 1, 2010. There will also be restrictions on how much of the swimmer’s body can be covered. (July 31, 2009)

Photo: New York Times – Lars Baron/Bongarts, via Getty Images

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