The Glass Darkly

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Public Policy and Law - the 1st Amendment

There are a few issues in government and education I have encountered upon my return from overseas which have motivated me to study more to understand the arguments. For example, it's not hard to get me on a band wagon against No Child Left Behind policies.

Since I started this post weeks ago now, I should say, the other week I had a conversation with some moms who are frustrated "for" their children who are taking PSSA tests this week. Actually, I think most children are fine with it; I wonder if parents get more stressed than their children believing that the tests are indicators of how "good/smart/successful" their children are, and even worse, how good/bad their teachers are! I believe the current arguments being used to support standardized testing and the consequencial policies on the schools are, in the end, actually damaging to our public school systems. But this is just a sidebar to my thoughts at the moment.

Actually what I am wallowing through at the moment is the First Amendment, the foundation of our democracy and the most beloved of all the amendments. In it we find the federal government giving us the right to free speech, the right to free press, the right to assemble and the right to petition the government concerning grievances. But most pressing in my study right now is the first line which guarantees our religious freedom.

I get frustrated at the various ways I have heard this part of the first amendment interpreted depending on who is doing the interpreting, namely, Christians, the ACLU, politicians or those opposed to religion altogether. Mostly we hear this in terms of "separation of church and state." It is deliniated in the Establishment and Free-exercise Clauses which basically say, keep religion out of the public domain and keep the government out of the church. Sometimes I wonder if people understand the value of these clauses.

In the circles where I find myself right now, I have mostly heard people complain that the government wants to remove religion from the public domain (examples: manger scenes, Ten Commandments, prayer in school). When Christians get upset about what the government does they often point to the need for Christian government leaders who stand on Christian values. I have heard Christians say that our government was founded on Christian principles to which we need to return. In this way they seem to promote an intertwining of government and religion or faith. Ironically, however, many of those same Christians are happy to claim tax exemptions for church and religious institutions. This statute is based on the separation of church and state, or the establishment clause of the 1st amendment.

Another point I can't help but hear in this is that some people who say they want religious freedom, deep-down are meaning it only for Christians. All other religions are suspect or cults. They seem to imply that the first pilgrims came here for "Christian religious freedom" so that's what religious freedom really means. The government, then, should favor or trust or maybe even promote the Christian faith, but distrust or wage war against the "evil" Islamic faith or protect us from the animistic faiths or "New Age" influences.

In our church right now we are talking about how we should listen to the voices from the past, those who were closer to the start of the church because they will or should have a better interpretation of what is important in our worship and church functions. In the same way, I have found the voices of those who helped to write the first amendment helpful in my own understanding of it. James Madison was one voice I found very insightful. I'll save his voice for another post, since it has taken me too long already to finish this post. But his commentary has been extremely enlightening for me in this study.

The Voice of James Madison and the Church

James Madison, makes 6 independent arguments against public involvement in religion and most specifically, religious education. They can be seen as negative by those who think the government should follow Christian principles and values, a secular mandate to keep faith out of the government. But, I believe their purpose is purely as warnings to the Founding Fathers and the children of this new land, many who came for religious freedom and escape from persecution, to keep them separate so that we not harm either religion or civil society.

1. All Americans have the natural right to free and equal exercise of religion. It is a "gift of nature," as people exercise religion as a matter of conscience. So they can choose to exercise it or choose not to. By nature, "men" are free and independent so when they enter into civil society, they are unable to give up their equal right to this freedom . . . it predates civil society itself.
2. When civil society enacts laws that affect religion, religion is harmed. Judges are not theologians and religion does not need the support of civil society to flourish. History demonstrates that when the state meddles with religion, religion becomes debased.

3. When civil society enacts laws on religion, civil society is harmed. States that support religious institutions have not guarded liberty or equality, rather it creates a form of "spiritual tyranny."

4. Enforcement of law, such as the establishment of religion, undermines respect for the rule of law because law invades the private lives and sphere of conscious of citizens. The efforts to enforce something like this will inevitably fail.

5. Favor of one religion over another inhibits the diffusion of knowledge and progressive search for truth. In other words, freedom and speech must be protected from laws that would prohibit some thought and some speech in the name of orthodoxy. Madison believed that when the state establishes or prefers one belief system over another, the state inevitably inhibits the "marketplace" of ideas required for the evolution toward truth.

6. Favor of one religion over another by the government or law operates as a signal of American persecution. Madison suggests that even the appearance of religious intolerance will act as a "signal" that deters people searching for freedom.

I worked with a guy from Canada when I was in Cambodia. We had many conversations about America's "civil religion," our American politics which is constantly trying to overlap Christianity and politics and law. He just could not understand why Amercians would tolerate it and where it came from.

The more I think about it, I wonder myself. How can the Church be a voice to hold the government leaders accountable when she is "in bed" with those who lead unethically? How can the Church speak prophetically to the nation when her voice is edited by politically partisan church leaders? I don't know if James Madison was a Christian or not, but I do not see that his call to separation of church and state was because he did not like religion, but rather because he wanted to protect the voice of faith that speaks to our conscience and that of the government.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Simple Thoughts about Complex Problems

We were driving home last night when the news came on the radio. Sad reports about the earthquake in Japan and tornadoes in many Western states sparked questions from my children which turn into the winding conversations that are often very precious, both teachable moments and enlightening ones for me as well.

In the middle of that conversation my son picked up on the news report that 5 U.S. military personnel were killed in road side bombings yesterday in Iraq. My ears perked up as well. I felt the sadness of more death (knowing that for the number of U.S. soldiers killed, there were probably dozens more Iraqis killed in the same day). But I was also wondering what my son would say about this report.

In recent months, he has shown a keen interest and perhaps an admiration for the "power" that soldiers portray. He has read David and Goliath and the story of when the soldiers captured Jesus dozens of times each week for the last couple months. He was intrigued by the videos my mom showed about the Book of Acts Christians and how the soldiers tried to catch the Christians and persecute them. He has asked many detailed questions about guns and spears and why the Roman soldiers dressed the way they did. And both my children keep singing the children's song, "I may never march in the infantry . . . " over and over again. Needless to say, my husband has been quite irritated by it all and I have kept a close ear on my son's comments and questions.

Then he said some things I was not expecting at all.

He said, "mommy, they died, right?"

I replied, "yes, that's sad, isn't it? And the news often only reports how many Americans died, but there are usually a lot more Iraqis who died too."

My son continued, "It's sad. They think that fighting will solve their problems. They don't understand that if they said they are sorry, that would solve the problem, right?"

I was so surprised by this simple analysis of such a large, complex problem. In my mind I was envisioning U.S. leaders going to Iraq and saying they were sorry for the destruction the U.S. invoked in their country. I imagined U.S. leaders apologizing to Middle Eastern leaders for the havoc the U.S. has committed over decades of military interferance in the issues between Israel and the rest of the Middle East. I envisioned U.S leaders humbling themselves before the international community, admitting U.S. arrogance in not listening to their voices 6 years ago and becoming a bully that labeled the U.N. as a waste of time and foolish.

What changes might come from saying "we are sorry?" All I could say to my son was, "I'm sure that would certainly help."

I was thinking, "that would certainly be a good place to start!"

Sunday, March 25, 2007

As Darkness Grows

I remember when I was a little girl, I would sometimes pretend I was blind . . . probably inspired by my reading of Helen Keller or my intrigue of Mary on Little House on the Prairie. Anyway, I recall thinking, I should teach myself to remember where things were in a dark room or how I got from one place to the other so that if I ever did lose my sight, I could get around and not be afraid. Sounds like a silly little-girl's logic, but I suspect, reveals a hidden philosophy I apparently have carried through my life.

I've always depended on my ability to work at something long and hard enough that I finally conquer it, be it a task, understanding a concept or fixing a problem. Like most people, I learn by making connections, like paths through the dark, and when I finally figure out the path, the lightbulb comes on and suddenly I am freed from my blindness. That feeling of freedom, of victory, of understanding after the long pains of "try, try again," is like a carrot, a reward for getting it right. I think my self-esteem has long depended on that feeling of accomplishment, a form of self-affirmation.

I remember months of frustration in 5th grade math, trying to make the connection between decimals and fractions -- just could not get it. My teacher said I was doing well, but I knew in my heart I was like a blind person groping around in the darkness making a few good guesses here and there, but nonetheless, blind. Then suddenly, one day I was just sitting at my desk, working on some problems and !!! the lightbulb came on. The connections snapped together and finally it seemed so simple and clear. Once again, I felt secure in my ability to figure things out.

However, I feel like the older I get, those connections or "lightbulbs" have become fewer and further between. There are things I grapple with and I think, "there must be a connection here that I am not getting!" I torture myself when I just sit and think and think and think, like Pooh Bear whose brain is about as big as a pea and can hardly think of anything further than his honeypot! The flip side to this is that as I have gotten older, I have also come to accept the fact that there are a few things about life I will never grasp . . . mysteries . . . and I am happy to release my need to figure them out.

The truth is, while I have learned new skills and adapted to changes in life, I have had also lost much of the sharpness I once had. As I get older, my physical eyesight is not as strong -- I can tell. But also, when I experience fewer and fewer "lightbulb" experiences, I have this nagging fear that my brain is slowly losing its ability to "see" too. Now, the "groping through a dark room" is not as fun and challenging as it once was. I sometimes fear that the lightbulb will never come on and, indeed, I will be left in frustration . . . to maneuver based only on my memory of how the room looked when I last saw it.

"I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
I will turn the darkness into light before them
and make the rough places smooth.
These are the things I will do;
I will not forsake them."

Is. 42:16

Friday, March 16, 2007

A Winter Blahh

Ok, the snow is beautiful, but not as breathtaking as it was when I was a little girl, standing on the edge of a mountain forest, from where I could turn around to see the view of endless white fields sloping away to meet the light blue sky . . . or looking out my bedroom window to see the snowflakes falling through a faint beam from our outside pole light backdropped by the black night.

We live in the city now. The dark windows of our neighbors houses are like black eyes that watch your every move. And so we have blinds covering our windows. And even if I could leave my house and walk back to the open field behind the school near our home, the snow falling takes on a different hue in the yellow lights which line the streets and buildings.

I think I must be coming down with a winter blahh. Worse than a winter cold -- comes on quickly; I can't ward it off with extra Vitamin C. It's the kind of condition which makes me irrational and mopey. Anything that has been bothering me hurts worse and old wounds refester.

I received an update letter from David and Grace Shenk today. Brought tears to my eyes. First of all, the pictures of them in the various countries where they traveled made me really miss Cambodia and my life there. I know this is unfair, but I really am feeling the humdrum of life here again. Looking at their pictures, I heard myself say - "now that is real life!!! Exciting!" I get tired of the same old issues here. I get tired of life that seems static ... even though society seems to have changed so much in the last 50 years, it is amazing how some attitudes haven't. As usual, the Shenk's letter shed some hope and cheerful light, illuminating my own lack-luster attitude and less-than-hopeful outlook. Once again I am missing my friends with whom we shared each day, helping one another maneuver through life in a foreign culture and critique the issues of living as light in a strange land, among people of little hope but a lot to teach us.

Nowadays my daily challenges include trying to pack interesting and nutritious lunches for my children or adjusting my baby's feeding schedule to make her happier! I know in the long run, this is important work too, but, just as my body would appreciate more exercise right about now, my brain could use more at times too. I need to keep my study nights - the more I think about it, they are like my extra doses of vitamin C that may help to ward off my winter blahh.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Christian Culture - Sacred or Secular

I was listening to a Motown CD on my way home tonight. It was one of several I got from a good friend in Cambodia. I never knew much about Motown growing up and did not listen to the music, yet I felt enriched to have learned to enjoy it in Cambodia (and even watch people dance to it!) since it was a style, it seemed, which was well liked by many of my international friends there.

It got me thinking about the Christian culture in which I was raised and others in which I have lived and worked over the years. The culture which impacted my faith the most growing up (not necessarily the one my parents lived in) was one that very much separated itself from the world. I only listened to Christian music, and up until high school read mostly Christian books and had mostly Christian friends. Though I was taught to be light in the world, I was also taught to be wary of contamination by the world. There was the sacred of which I could partake and then there was the secular from which I had to stay away. Good Christians were not good if they "did as the world." Can't say if this was based on the two kingdom theology or not, but it seems to describe my reality.

In recent years I recognized this attitude has followed me all my life, however, it no longer strongly guides my judgements, per se. In Cambodia I got to work with all kinds of people, including wonderful Christians who did not feel the need to separate the sacred from the secular in the way I described. I met Christians, even Mennonites, who, in addition to their Christian music and activities, enjoyed listening to secular music, dancing (a no-no when I went to college), and drinking wine at dinner. I was stretched to stop judging a Christian's level of faith by the amount of secular he/she allowed or participated in.

My husband and I would go out with a very good friend of mine and his wife once in a while. I remember the first time we went out, my friend was concerned he would offend us if he and his wife enjoyed a glass of wine (I believe our MCC contracts did not allow alcohol unless it was culturally inappropriate not to partake). After we cleared it up that we would not be offended, I laughed when I caught my friend's eyes scanning the crowd around us at a restaurant, looking for any Cambodian Christians who might catch him in the act of enjoying a glass of wine with his dinner.

Though my friend felt the "freedom" to enjoy a glass once in a while, we all recognized that we were working in a very young and a rather legalistic Christian culture in Cambodia where, as my friend humorously put it, "Christians should not smoke, drink or chew, or go with girls that do!" This pretty much summed up what Cambodians were taught by most of the Christian evangelical missionaries. He wanted to be careful not to be a stumbling block while exercising his "freedom in Christ." I wonder if Paul wanted us to consider the sacred and secular in those verses. That which we label as secular, Paul would say is OK? I am pondering that thought.

Coming back from Cambodia, I feel I have re-entered a mostly dichotomous Christian culture once again. Deep down, I know that there is sincerity in such a culture which only partakes in what is labeled "sacred" but now I have been exposed to other Christian cultures which allow more of a mix between the secular and sacred. Now I am more skeptical, even of my own motives and convictions. For example, why don't I allow myself to drink wine?

How much is sincere; how much is pretense; how much is unwise . . . so many thoughts and questions. I want my children to be "separate" from the world, but also learn about and appreciate what is there too. If I only allow them exposure to the "sacred," how will they learn to relate to those in the world? How much secular exposure puts their Christianity on the line? Should they only be allowed to read Christian books or listen to Christian music or have only Christian friends???? Hmmm . . .

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

American Culture

We presume so much in this culture:


Is there anything I missed?

I can't help but think about the numbers of people around the globe who could never dream of such presumptions.

I am also struck by the fact that there are those even in this country who cannot presume to have this list even though they are guaranteed by our constitution.
And what to do about it ...