I was invited to a prayer breakfast this morning by a friend who happens to pastor the local Lutheran Church here in town. He’s been hoping for years to see people of faith have an impact “on the ground” in our aging small towns and suburbs and has become part of a coalition in New Jersey the he believes is accomplishing his goal. Not only for the aforementioned “aging small towns and suburbs” but also for our urban centers here in New Jersey. So, when my friend offered to bring me to the breakfast as his guest, I was quite honored and accepted.
The coalition itself is impressive, and is intent on being involved in the public discussion over a good range of issues: health care, education funding, equitable housing, sprawl, immigration, and prison over-population were some of the topics I can remember. These are topics that I believe Christians need to be involved because they spring from the pages of Scripture. To that end, I’m glad that the New Jersey Coalition is working, and they’ve already helped to raise people’s awareness about the unjust practices of richer towns selling their middle and low income housing requirements to smaller, and poorer, towns. The loop holes that allowed towns to send lower income families packing to another town have been closed – thanks in part to this coalition’s work. They’ve also been involved in education funding, but I think their “win” here may have caused some poorer towns (like Palmyra) more harm than good in the long run. To be honest, I don’t think our school district is economically viable in the current political and economic environment, I fear the education is going to start spiraling downward.
I’m also very friendly to a movement that strives to put a stop to sprawl and goes back to rejuvenating older towns and cities. Though, let me be perfectly honest here, Palmyra has become a rivertown backwater in large measure because that’s exactly what Palmyra wanted to be – its people and leaders have made decision after decision to walk on that path, and I’d like faith communities to remind towns of that as well as call for an end to sprawl.
So, there was much I could honestly applaud – but there was a good deal that made me leery of signing on with these folks as well.
- I have difficulty with LCD organizations when they try and pretend that all the folks who are participating really believe “the same thing.” I find it dishonest to look at a room that contains Christians, Jews, and Unitarian Universalists and say, “We all share the same faith.” We don’t. We are cousins off of the same ethical branch, but we do not share the same faith. It also actually serves to water down the public witness of their goals – when you say that there are groups which are divided by doctrine, but drawn to the same ethical conclusions, that carries weight with people. I’m also tired of the enlightenment notion of, “All religions lead to the same place and teach the same things.” It get’s old.
- While I agree with much of the set goals for this coalition, I’m wary of how they’re going about it. There were a good number of “partners” who spoke at the breakfast today, and what came out was essentially a pep rally for the political ambitions of Gov. Corzine and President Obama. I understand the sense of hope that the Obama administration has brought to a wide swatch of Americans. Yet, for years I’ve been screaming for the Religious right to stop prostituting themselves out to the GOP and to particular candidates. It’s hurt their credibility, caused a lot of people to think that Christianity is only for rich, white, Americans. I am not thrilled to see another group of equally faithful Christians (and the majority of folks there were Christian) go and inadvertently bow down to the DNC and specific politicians/candidates. I also don’t get Governor Corzine at all. He’s signed some good bills, I guess – but I’m not sure it deserves a pep-rally by some of his subordinates at a prayer breakfast.
- Third, we really need to re-think our language. Several times both clergy and guest speak remarked that health care was a “right.” I don’t think that language is helpful at all – it just causes people to get their hackles up and start spouting whatever party line they happen to be aligned with. “Rights” language is the language of combat and conquest and while it was used effectively (and rightly) in the Civil Rights movement in the mid-20th Century I think our society has migrated enough that it’s no longer helpful. Besides, “Human rights” is secular language born from the idea of objective rationality – a group of faith communities can do better than that. So, I’d hope that we’d be involved in the health care reform conversation while using the language of righteousness. How can we be in right relationship with each other? I think that might help people understand that this issue isn’t about bringing one group down in order to raise another up (well, maybe congress, their coverage is crazy-good compared to the rest of us schleps and they’d need to take their own medicine). Health care reform is about elevating us all though a call to a righteous shalom.
So what have I found out through this breakfast? I’m neither “conservative” nor “progressive.” Sometimes I think it would just be easier to sign up with one mentality and bore ahead blindly – but it wouldn’t be honest. Oh well… faith is not easy.