Sunday, March 30, 2008

This year, a century ends

Although the still ice covered lake outside the window would indicate otherwise (to say nothing of the 6-8 inches of snow predicted for today), today is the season opener for baseball. It is also the beginning of the hundred year anniversary year of the last time my beloved Cubs won it all.

I welcome this unofficial first day of summer wearing my faded and torn Cubs cap from the soul shattering 1984 campaign. In this summer of Hope, I Believe.

Go Cubs!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

We The People...

For the second time in as many months, Barack Obama has left me feeling humbled, and awed at his ability to take the higher path.

The first was during his remarkable victory speech after the South Carolina primary. After a week of the most distasteful pandering and race baiting, the man stepped forward riding an enormous victory and a ground swell of "not this time". I (and I'm sure many others) were watching with a sense of rightousness, glad that those that had behaved so poorly had been rejected so soundly. I was waiting for a firey rebuke of the race baiting tactics and a triumphant victory speech.

Sen. Obama showed himself the better man. In what was the third of a series of speeches that will change this country and be remembered and studied for generations, he moved beyond the passions of the now, and urged us to embrace where we are as the starting point for what we must become:

We are up against the idea that it's acceptable to say anything and do anything to win an election. We know that this is exactly what's wrong with our politics; this is why people don't believe what their leaders say anymore; this is why they tune out. And this election is our chance to give the American people a reason to believe again.

And what we've seen in these last weeks is that we're also up against forces that are not the fault of any one campaign, but feed the habits that prevent us from being who we want to be as a nation. It's the politics that uses religion as a wedge, and patriotism as a bludgeon. A politics that tells us that we have to think, act, and even vote within the confines of the categories that supposedly define us. The assumption that young people are apathetic. The assumption that Republicans won't cross over. The assumption that the wealthy care nothing for the poor, and that the poor don't vote. The assumption that African-Americans can't support the white candidate; whites can't support the African-American candidate; blacks and Latinos can't come together.

But we are here tonight to say that this is not the America we believe in. I did not travel around this state over the last year and see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina. I saw South Carolina. I saw crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children. I saw shuttered mills and homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from all walks of life, and men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. I saw what America is, and I believe in what this country can be.
The choice in this election is not between regions or religions or genders. It's not about rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus white.

It's about the past versus the future.

It's about whether we settle for the same divisions and distractions and drama that passes for politics today, or whether we reach for a politics of common sense, and innovation - a shared sacrifice and shared prosperity.
When I hear that we'll never overcome the racial divide in our politics, I think about that Republican woman who used to work for Strom Thurmond, who's now devoted to educating inner-city children and who went out onto the streets of South Carolina and knocked on doors for this campaign. Don't tell me we can't change.

Yes we can change.

Yes we can heal this nation.

Yes we can seize our future.

And as we leave this state with a new wind at our backs, and take this journey across the country we love with the message we've carried from the plains of Iowa to the hills of New Hampshire; from the Nevada desert to the South Carolina coast; the same message we had when we were up and when we were down - that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope; and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people in three simple words:

Yes. We. Can.

This morning, as he took to the podium to address the concerns raised by his association with Rev. Wright, Sen. Obama humbled me again. The narrative had already been written: reject Rev. Wright and embrace the "mainstream", or stand firm with his pastor and become the latest in a long stream of "black" candidates. Rather than take the simple path, Sen. Obama seized the moment and with nuance and intelligence and honesty that shines a searing light on the absence of these traits in modern politics, urged us all to embrace where we are, as a starting point for what we must become. The speech is a remarkable one, and should be read or viewed in its entirety. The issues raised should also be discussed and debated by all those that are committed to a better America. Some excerpts:

Remarks of Senator Barack Obama
"A More Perfect Union"
Constitution Center
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

"We the people, in order to form a more perfect union."

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America's improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.
And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part - through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk - to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign - to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America. I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together - unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction - towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren.

This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. But it also comes from my own American story.
It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts - that out of many, we are truly one.

Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all predictions to the contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity. Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country. In South Carolina, where the Confederate Flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African Americans and white Americans.
I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely - just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.
Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America - to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.
This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy - particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

But I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country - a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen - is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope - the audacity to hope - for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds - by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle - as we did in the OJ trial - or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, "Not this time." This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn; that those kids who don't look like us are somebody else's problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.
This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation - the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.

There is one story in particularly that I'd like to leave you with today - a story I told when I had the great honor of speaking on Dr. King's birthday at his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta.

There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.

And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that's when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.

She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too.

Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother's problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn't. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they're supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who's been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he's there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, "I am here because of Ashley."

"I'm here because of Ashley." By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.

But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.

I am again humbled by the courage and leadership example of this man. Better to lose the presidency standing tall for the future you believe in, than to gain the presidency by embracing the present you seek to change. He chose not to speak to the sound bite narrative and the least common denominator. Rather, he chose to take on the larger issue, the harder issue, the infinitely more nuanced and subtle issue and ultimately important issue. Sen. Obama's speech today was a profound example of political courage, and an extraordinary declaration of faith in our ability as We The People to move forward together towards that More Perfect Union.

I am here because of Ashley, and also for El and Iz, Alex and Emily, Ethan and Maddie, Jessica and Garrett, and countless others. I pray that our courage is worthy of their hope and possibilities.


John Nichols at The Nation offers a wonderful analysis of the speech.

James Carney at Time crystalizes the audacity of choice that Obama presented today.

Joseph Palermo and Stacy Parker Aab write wonderfully about the courage and truth of the speech today.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

5 years in, a time for penance

March 19 will be the 5th anniversary of the Iraq war. With nearly 4,000 American soldiers dead, many more damaged and wounded in terrible and subtle ways, families and communities devastated by endless combat tours, and countless hundreds of thousands of Iraqi's displaced, devastated, and killed, it is a moment that requires thoughtful reflection on our responsibilities and accountabilities.

Five years ago, in the run up to the war, I shared the following with some mailing lists I am on (preblog days):

Echoes and Focus

A timely and thought provoking piece from a voice that earned a right to be heard:

In my opinion, Iraq II may be the right war for the wrong reasons. By being for the wrong reasons, it makes it the wrong war (the end can never justify the means).

The US created Saddam in the name of practicality, to help manage the direct consequences of another monster that was created in the name of practicality (the Shah). It falls to us to clean up the mess we created, not in the name of the UN or homeland security, but because of our responsibility to the American ideal.

As a nation, we should address that responsibility directly, and not mask the discussion in wranglings over UN resolutions and WMD posturing. This is a problem we created, and we need to fix it, the French be damned.

The other side of the war on terror understands that their war is with the American ideal, not America the place. It is we that are blind to where the real battle is being fought.

America the place will survive, even if we suffer horrific losses. The great legacy, burden, and responsibility of the nation is the ideals it represents. The smear of hypocrisy is the great enemy, and I fear we're sinking ever deeper into that hole for the sake of practicality (TIA, Pakistan, Venezuela, UN "debates", Saudi Arabia, Palestine/Israel, China, etc.)


When the war started, we were visiting my parents home in Washington DC. Like many Americans, I was riveted to the television in those first days of the war. My profound dread and fear for our soldiers were replaced by the giddy joy of watching Baghdad fall with minimal loss of life. There were tears flowing down my face as the brave soldiers draped the American flag on the statue of Saddam. As I went on my run that day (down Democracy Blvd of all places), I was bursting with pride that my country had so expertly removed a tyrant and evil man, and had begun to atone for the evil of having put him in place to begin with.

Shortly afterwards, a letter to the editor in the Washington Post lambasted the soldier who draped that flag on that statue. I was moved to write the following to the editor of the Washington Post:

I am writing in response to Joe Dobrow's comments on April 11 that the marine who draped the flag over the statue of Saddam Hussein "displayed the insensitive behavior for which Americans are known around the world."

Mr. Dubrow and others should remember that for our military, their families, and many Americans, our flag is not a symbol of jingoism, political affiliation, or national borders. Regardless of how it may appear to others, the Stars and Strips represents the freedoms that members of our volunteer military have committed their lives to defend, even in distant places for other peoples.

When that brave Marine raised the flag, it was not to chants of "U-S-A" in some perverse ESPN moment. Rather, the flag was raised in honor and memory to those who fought and fell at Okinawa, Normandy Beach, Berlin, Pyongyang, Basra, Baghdad, and countless other far off places so that we and others may enjoy the blessings of liberty.

While we may have honest disagreements about our nation's policies and the long term implications of the war, we as a nation should never be ashamed or reproachful when those who bravely and honorably fight and die for the freedoms we all enjoy proudly raise the Stars and Stripes. They, their families, and what our flag represents deserve better.

Ray Ghanbari

Five years in, I am grateful that we have not turned on members of our military. However, it is clear that we are engaged in an unjust war for unjust reasons. It was the right thing to remove Saddam. We had created a monster, it was our obligation to remove him. Our distorted rationale going in (and on-going distortions to stay in) have corrupted the moral basis for the war, and have hurt our country in ways that will decades for us to recognize and reconcile. Until we acknowledge and accept that we have not been in the right and that we have caused tremendous pain and death to countless innocents, we will be unable to to gain the redemption that will truly save what we are fighting for.

Several weeks ago, I was struck dumb by a remarkably vivid call for repentance and salvation by the Rev. Jim Wallis. His words are worthy of study and contemplation by all Americans, regardless of religious persuasion. His call for repentance is of profound importance to us all. In this season of repentance and rebirth, I wish all of us the courage to confront our past, so we can embrace our future together.

A Lenten Call to Repentance (by Jim Wallis)

March 19 will be the fifth anniversary of the war with Iraq. In this season of Lent, we are called to lament and repent for an ongoing war that is being waged by our country, financed by our taxes, and fought by our brothers and sisters. After five years, we all lament the suffering and violence in Iraq. We mourn the nearly 4,000 Americans who have lost their lives, the tens of thousands wounded in body and mind, and the unknown hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died.

Recent U.S. claims of modest security gains in certain sectors of Iraq do not justify extending the U.S occupation - especially when five years of occupation has not produced the political reconciliation necessary for real security and stability. The fragile security improvements are not sustainable without a political solution, which is simply not forthcoming. And without a clear path to political progress, we will simply see more of the same failed strategy and a scenario of American occupation in the midst of bloody sectarian warfare with absolutely no end in sight—and with a real prospect of compounding the tragedy by attacking Iran as well.

On this anniversary, we should all repent for America's actions. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said about the war in Vietnam: "How can I pray when I have on my conscience the awareness that I am co-responsible for the death of innocent people in Vietnam? In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible." It is a good lesson for those of us who oppose the war – it is still funded by our tax dollars and supported by our elected leaders. That is a responsibility for which we all must repent.

But repentance means more than just being sorry. It means both admitting that the course we have been on is wrong and committing to begin walking in a new direction. Repentance has to do with transformation, and that's exactly what the American church needs to break out of its conformity to the American government's foreign policy of fear and war. We must pursue our future foreign policy in ways that are consistent with moral principles, wise political judgments, and international law - rejecting unilateral preemptive wars for multilateral cooperation. We need a new definition of our national security. There is a better way. The global church feels it, and the world is hungry for it.

Given how important the issues of Iraq, Iran, and U.S. foreign policy will be in the 2008 elections, there is no better time than now for U.S. churches to offer words and acts of repentance for their misguided and misleading support for America's mistakes. It's finally time for the American churches to find their voice for Jesus' way of peacemaking and to demonstrate—in matters of war, peace, and the critical area of conflict resolution—just who we belong to.

For the next four weeks, God's Politics will be featuring posts from a variety of voices on Iraq. We'll hear from Iraqis, U.S. veterans and parents, Christians from other countries, pastors, and peacemakers - all reflecting on the cost of the war. Together, we can dedicate ourselves to a world where war is not the answer.

For those so inclined, Rev. Wallis has an on-line affirmation for those looking to publicly embrace a new path.