Monday, March 28, 2011

Sermon: "Universalism: Free to a Good Home" (Delivered 3-27-11)

A few years ago I attended a lecture at William Jewel College in Liberty, Missouri. The speaker was Brian McLaren, a minister, author, leader, and theologian. McLaren is considered the grandfather of a movement within Evangelical Christianity that he helped to birth. The movement is called “Emergent” or “The Emerging Church” and it is a movement that is both fascinating and has been widely criticized by conservative Christians as unorthodox and heretical and dangerous.

In addition to one curious Unitarian Universalist minister and number of college students who were clearly there for no other reason than to receive credit, the audience that evening consisted of dozens of members of local Emergent style churches as well as dozens of orthodox Evangelical Christians who came to witness to McLaren’s heresy and see if they could catch him in the act of unbiblical teaching. These Evangelicals glared at him throughout the lecture and used the question and answer time (literally!) to shake their Bibles at him and scream Bible verses at him.

After the lecture I approached McLaren and asked him to sign his newest book for me. I told him I was a UU minister. “Ah, yes,” he replied, “The Unitarians are always so kind to me.”

The reading comes from a chapter in McLaren’s newest book, A New Kind of Christianity, which came out in 2010. The paragraph I’ve selected comes from his chapter entitled, “Can We Find a Better Way of Viewing the Future?” In this chapter, McLaren argues that all beliefs about the afterlife are intimately related to how we imagine and envision the future. He writes,
Whatever the final judgment will be, then, it will not involve God (please pardon the crudeness of this) pulling down our pants to check for circumcision or scanning our brains for certain beliefs like products being scanned at the grocery checkout. No, God will examine the story of our lives for signs of Christlikeness – for a cup of cold water or a plate of hot food given to one in need, for an atom of mercy shown to one who has been unkind or unthoughtful, for a visit to a prisoner or an open door and warm bed for a stranger, for a generous impulse indulged and a hurtful one denied, like Jesus. These are the parts of a person’s life that will be deemed worthy of being saved, remembered, rewarded, and raised for a new beginning.

[Musical Interlude]

My phone rang. I picked it up and it was my friend who had just been watching television. She had seen a commercial for a church. The commercial had announced, “At our church our hearts are open, our minds are open, and our doors are open.” She had heard this hook with its refrain of open hearts, open minds, and open doors and she had remarked to herself that it was a great thing that the Unitarian Universalists were advertising on television. But then the end of the commercial came and she saw it was a commercial for the United Methodist Church. “Thom, I’m calling to let you know that they’re stealing your message.”

A few years ago the United Church of Christ put out a series of commercials. One commercial showed the sanctuary of a gorgeous traditional-looking church building. The pews had been rigged with ejection seats and an usher stood off in the corner. He pushed a button and the gay couple gets ejected. Then the single mom gets ejected. Then the homeless person. Then the racial minority. The commercial’s tag line: “Jesus didn’t reject anyone. Neither do we. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

My point here is about what I felt when I saw that advertisement that proclaimed “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” When I saw that advertisement I thought for a second, “Hey, that’s our message. We’re the ones who talk about acceptance and every person having inherent worth and dignity. Don’t steal our message.” It was a selfish thought to think. Is it not a victory for us when others adopt a position of respect for all and inclusion of all, when hearts and minds and doors other than ours grow increasingly open? This loving approach, is it for us to keep for ourselves? Is it not for us to share? A loving God is always free to a good home.

This morning I want to discuss a part of our Unitarian Universalist heritage and identity that has been taking root outside of our institutions and that has been attracting a great deal of attention as of late. Over the past several years, several well-known Christian leaders have independently realized that they were Christian universalists. That is to say that they view the world through a Christian framework, but they reject the idea that God condemns people to Hell. Theologically, these new Christian universalists have come to embrace a position analogous to the theological beliefs held two centuries ago or more by our Universalist ancestors like John Murray, Hosea Ballou, and George de Benneville.

Many of you probably know the story of Bishop Carlton Pearson. I told his story in a sermon a few years ago. You may have heard his story told on a special episode of This American Life that devoted a full hour to him. Carlton Pearson was a Pentecostal mega-church minister in Tulsa who went through a theological transformation and rejected the idea that God would condemn anyone to Hell. Most of his flock left him after he began to preach these ideas. He lost his congregation but he stuck by his convictions.

Or, you may have heard the story of Philip Gulley. I told the story of Gulley in a sermon I delivered in 2009. Gulley was a Quaker pastor who co-authored two books of liberal Christian theology entitled, If God is Love and If Grace is True. He was threatened with having his credentials as a Quaker pastor stripped for preaching a universalist message and for preaching acceptance of gays and lesbians.

Or, you may have heard the story of Rob Bell. That is the story I am going to tell this morning. Rob Bell is the founding minister of the ten-thousand member Mars Hill Bible Fellowship in Grandville, Michigan. Rob Bell recently made headlines when critics accused him of being a universalist. The same charges of heresy and false prophecy that were lobbed against Carlton Pearson, Philip Gulley, and Brian McLaren were also hurled at Bell, all the more forcefully because the release of Bell’s book ten days ago was an event. The controversy around this book prompted invitations for Bell to appear and defend himself on all the major networks. He even appeared on Good Morning America. I don’t watch this program, but I’m not under the impression that Good Morning America devotes a lot of time to theological inquiry.

Bell tells the following story which prompted him to write the book. He begins,
Several years ago we had an art show at our church. I had been giving a series of teachings of peacemaking, and we invited artists to display their paintings, poems, and sculptures that reflected their understanding of what it means to be a peacemaker. One woman included in her work a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, which a number of people found quite compelling. But not everyone. Someone attached a piece of paper to it. On the piece of paper was written: “Reality check: He’s in hell.”
Bell continues,
Really? Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?
Another story the author tells amplifies this point,
Several years ago I heard a woman tell about the funeral of her daughter’s friend, a high-school student who was killed in a car accident. Her daughter was asked by a Christian if the young man who had died was a Christian. She said that he told people he was an atheist. This person then said to her, “So there’s no hope then.”
Which prompts Bell to ask,
No hope? Is that the Christian message? “No hope”? Is that what Jesus offers the world? Is this the sacred calling of Christians – to announce that there’s no hope?
Bell’s book, Love Wins, is the work of a fiercely committed Christian who is unafraid of asking hard questions about his own tradition. He does not avoid taking on the fact that the message that is so often equated with Christian orthodoxy seems to present a God who is, to put it kindly, a bit schizophrenic. Bell writes of this message,
[We’re told that] God loves us. [We’re told that] God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely, through no merit on our part. Unless [of course] you do not respond the right way. Then [we’re told that] God will torture you forever. In Hell. Huh?
In this book that came out ten days ago, Love Wins, Rob Bell sides powerfully with that side of the Christian story that is love-filled and hope-filled. He declares that it is contrary to the Christian message to declare that salvation is impossible for anyone. And he says that casting judgment is misguided and toxic.

Now, I’m not telling you to go out and buy Love Wins. I’m not telling you that you should read it. You might not enjoy it. The book is heavy, heavy on Christianity. And, most of us, I’m going to guess, don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the afterlife. We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the fate of our immortal soul. And, we definitely don’t live in fear of hell. Simply put, the issues that deeply concerned our Universalist Christian forebears some two centuries ago, the issues that Rob Bell and Carlton Pearson tackle in their writings, are not the types of issues that we spend a lot of psychic energy wrestling with. Am I right here? Are you tracking? I’m saying that you, you here in this congregation, probably didn’t wake up and come to church and think, “I’m hoping Thom will tell me about the afterlife.”

Just so nobody here can accuse me of ducking the issue, here is my theology of the afterlife in one sentence:
I do not know what will become of me after I die, but I am completely confident that if, by some mystery, my conscious self or some eternal soul should continue after my body dies, that what will come next, whatever it is, will be gentle, and kind, and peaceful.
I am an agnostic on this issue, but I am an extremely confident agnostic. For me it is that simple and I don’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about it.

And, if I said that in almost any other denomination I would get tossed to the curb, just as a Methodist minister in North Carolina got tossed to the curb earlier this week for saying positive things about Rob Bell.

So, if Rob Bell’s theology is not ours really, if this hasn’t been our issue for 200 years, why should we care? What skin could we possibly have in this game?

I think we should care for two reasons.

The first reason we should care is that the idea that love wins is contagious. The critics of Rob Bell aren’t going to like this, but when you embrace the idea of God’s love, your own love magnifies. Love is like the opposite of a slippery slope. As love grows it does not take us off a cliff. It takes us to the mountain top.

How many of you have read Hosea Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement? It is the most important early work in Universalist theology. Written is 1805, this book is long and dry. I tried to read it and couldn’t get through it, and I’m such a nerd for this stuff. But, it is foundational. In this theological work, Ballou discovered a God who, to paraphrase Brian McLaren, does not punish but reconciles; who does not diagnose, but heals; who does not expose but transforms; and who does not evaluate, but revalues and redeems. [p. 204] When you view God in this way it opens us up to move in all of the wonderful directions that our theology allows us to move. Case in point: the reading from Brian McLaren’s book I mentioned earlier, the reading from the chapter about finding a better way of viewing the future. The very next chapter in McLaren’s book deals with the question of how Christians should relate to non-Christians. Predictably, McLaren takes a position that demonstrates an open mind and an open heart. Crudely put, when you stop worrying that you are going to go to hell for being in mutual relationship with someone of a different faith and when you stop labeling them as damned, you’re able to be in relationship. We take the “no hell” part for granted, and for that reason we can engage in powerful interfaith work and value pluralism. And, that is important to us. And we can do that because we’ve worked out the judgment stuff. When love wins, love has a tendency to keep on winning.

I am tempted to say that the second reason that we should care about this Love Wins book is that if there is a public discourse going on about Universalism, we definitely want to be a part of that conversation. We have something to add. We have a personal testimony to give. We should be the ones going on Good Morning America and talking about what Universalism means. But I want to put aside those delusions of grandeur and take a much more modest approach. I want to go back to the very beginning when I talked about my conversation with Brian McLaren. “You Unitarians are always so kind.” That was a blessing that he spoke. And, it was a charge.

You see, Brian McLaren had just stood up there in front of his Christian family and spoken a message that I found profound and beautiful. And, members of his Christian family had shaken their Bibles at him, and literally screamed at him with foam gathering in the corners of their mouths. In their Biblical literalism they thought that their Christian faith demanded that they curse him. Matthew 23:33, they quoted, “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape the judgment of Hell?” The scene was ugly and tragic.

So, when McLaren told me, “You Unitarians are always so kind to me,” he was not pandering to someone who bought his book. He was saying that his heart was hurt by seeing members of his Christian family act with such hostility. Just as Rob Bell was hurt that a member of his church would feel inclined to deface someone’s art. Just as Rob Bell was hurt that a Christian would take the tragedy of a fatal car accident, or the tragedy of a Tsunami, as an opportunity to pronounce judgment on someone else.

Maybe it is our role in the wide world of religion, the wide world of humanity, to be the ones who practice kindness. Inclusive. Accepting. Forgiving. Kind. Open minds. Open hearts. Open doors. Being the ones who practice gentleness is not a bad way to be.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

"'Illegal' means 'Illegal'" except when it doesn't

Meet Leeland Davidson: 95 year-old resident of Centralia, Washington. Decorated World War II veteran. Not a United States citizen.

Mr. Davidson was born in British Columbia in 1916. Both of his parents were United States citizens, but they never filed the correct paperwork for their son. And, now Leeland Davidson has run into a bureaucratic nightmare because he can’t actually prove that his parents were citizens. They were each born in the rural Midwest in the late 1800s, before birth certificates were issued.

The citizenship surprise came when Mr. Davidson went to apply for an enhanced ID so that he could travel to visit his cousin in Canada. Not only was he denied the ID, the paper pushers advised him to let the matter drop. They warned him that if he pursued his attempts to get identification he might wind up losing his social security benefits. He might even face deportation.

Critics of the current immigration system in the United States refer to the system as “broken.” That brokenness would seem to be on full display here. After all, here we have a system in which laws, policies, procedures, and paperwork make difficult or impossible that which is “plainly the right thing to do.”

This story also is a perfect illustration of what white privilege looks like. Taking a page from Tim Wise, in this story we see that:
White privilege means being able to live in the United States for 95 years without ever once having your immigration status questioned.

White privilege means that rules and laws don’t really apply to you. “Oh, that’s not how the law was intended. We’ll make an exception for you.”

White privilege means being able to openly speak of your immigration status without fear.

White privilege means that your experience defines what it means to be American.

White privilege means that the media will treat your immigration story as a quirky, offbeat, and humorous human interest story. (In this news broadcast, this story was lumped in with a story about “pole dancing for Jesus.” I originally discovered this story in the Yahoo news feed that regularly brings me “news” of funny videos of pets on YouTube and unusual sports bloopers.)
While critics of the immigration system in our country refer to that system as broken, those who favor tougher immigration laws and enforcement have rallied around a slogan that announces “illegal means illegal.” This argument says that no exceptions should be made for anyone. The law is supreme. No consideration should be given to keep families together or to look out for a child’s welfare. If the child was brought here as an infant or toddler and has lived her entire life here, she should be barred from receiving financial aid to go to college. No consideration whatsoever should be given to complexity or nuance, to larger social and economic and geopolitical factors, or to a higher sense of what is moral and humane. Everything is black and white. Illegal means illegal.

It will be interesting to see whether the anti-immigrant voices in the United States speak up loudly and unequivocally in the case of Leeland Davidson. Will they demand that Leeland Davidson be held to account? Will they charge him with voter fraud? Will they charge him with social security fraud? Will they call for him to be deported to a country where he never actually lived? Somehow I doubt it. The laws are the laws and they need to be obeyed, except when they don’t.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sermon: "Marching in the Streets in the Middle East" (Delivered 3-13-11)

[Note: This sermon was delivered approximately a week before the United States, Great Britain, and France launched airstrikes against Libya. I have decided not to change my original sermon in light of these newest developments.]

There is a moment from my life, a moment of regret I think, that has been replaying in my mind quite a bit over the past couple of months. A decade ago I was sitting in a tea house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, having a conversation with a good friend, a Unitarian Universalist young adult at First Parish in Cambridge. We were both in our early twenties and my friend was a world traveler. While our tea steeped, I asked her about the any upcoming trips she was considering. She answered me, “Do you know where I’m really trying to get to? I’ve been dreaming of taking a trip to Iran.”

Truth be told, I chuckled nervously. Admittedly, Iran is not at the top of most American’s ideal travel destinations. Let me put it this way: at my bank, the tellers all have these little get-to-know-me name cards that state their name, their hometown, their hobby, and the country they most want to visit. There is a lot of France and Italy, a lot of Jamaica and Australia. Nobody says that they dream of visiting Iran.

My friend began to describe her dream trip. “There is an enormous youth population in Iran. They are young people who are educated, idealistic, politically thoughtful, and culturally inventive. There is a youth movement underway. Revolution is in the air. And there is nowhere I would rather go than the coffee bars of inner city Tehran. It’s where the movement is. I’m planning to fly to Moscow, meet up with some Russians I know, and have them escort me down and cross into Azerbaijan, at which point I’d catch a ride to the Iranian border, cross over, and figure out a way to get to Tehran.”

I wasn’t invited to go along exactly. And plus, I had committed to internships and was earnestly preparing for ministry. The September 11 terrorist attacks occurred a few months after that conversation. A few weeks later the United States attacked the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the Bush Administration began to set into motion the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

I became the minister here. My friend traveled to Cuba instead. And, in Iran, the youth revolution was put on hold. There is a basic rule that says you don’t try to shake up your own government at a time when the world’s largest military superpower has invaded, occupied, and overthrown the government of the country neighboring you to the East, and has also invaded, occupied, and overthrown the government of the country neighboring you on the West, and has posted aircraft carrier battle groups miles away from your coast in the Persian Gulf, and an influential Senator and presidential candidate thinks it’s funny to sing “Bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys song “Barbara Ann.” Simply put, when nations feel threatened from the outside their citizens tend to unite behind their own leaders, even leaders many would normally oppose and criticize. Case in point: after September 11, the approval ratings of George Bush climbed from 55 percent to nearly 90 percent and remained elevated for the next two years.


This morning I want to say something about the populist political uprisings that have been sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East, beginning in Tunisia and then stretching out through Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, and beyond. I want to add another confession. Just as a decade ago I was oblivious to the presence of a revolutionary youth culture in Iran, this is a topic that I am far from the expert on. Many of you may know far more than I know. So, be forgiving and kind to me if you conclude that I just don’t get it.

The purpose of these remarks is also to be self-critical and reflexive. Examining these revolutions may in fact challenge some of the judgmental and biased views that some of us may hold about the people in that region of the world. And, to preview the sermon next week, in which I will talk not about taking the streets in the Middle East, but taking to the streets in Middle America, examining the revolutions half a world away may stoke our own thoughts about the possibility and necessity of revolution right here in our own backyard.

What I said about Iran a decade ago (and I should point out that it is quite possible that we may see a similar uprising in Iran in the coming months) is also true about Tunisia and Bahrain and Egypt. All of these countries have population bubbles with enormous populations of young people in their teens and twenties. The median age in Egypt, for example, is 24. By comparison, in the United States it is 35. These nations have an extremely large population of youth and it is the youth who are both the best educated and who face the greatest struggles with unemployment. The unemployment rate for young people in Egypt and Tunisia is significantly higher than the unemployment rate of the rest of the country. The unemployment rate for those with college degrees is especially high. Make no mistake, the protests in Egypt were not purely economic in nature, though they were certainly fueled by rising food costs, endemic poverty, and chronic unemployment. The frustrations of poverty and unemployment, however, were combined with criticisms of rampant government corruption, political repression, police brutality, violations of free speech, and election fraud.

The story of what triggered the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa is a story with which you are probably already familiar, but it is a story that deserves to be retold. The story involves a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi, a twenty six year old who supported his family by working as a street vendor in a small city in Tunisia. He repeatedly ran into harassment from the police as he tried to sell vegetables out of a cart. He was shaken down for bribes because he did not have the proper permits. One day, a police officer trashed his cart and Bouazizi responded by committing self-immolation in front of a police station. Two weeks later he died from the injuries he had inflicted upon himself. Ten days after his death, Tunisian President Ben Ali stepped down after having ruled Tunisia for 23 years. Ben Ali fled the country, and is currently in hiding in Saudi Arabia.

The speed and the momentum of the protests that toppled the government were extraordinary. Amateur Tunisian hip-hop artist Hamada Ben Amor, known as El General, released a couple of songs critical of the President’s regime. As his song was reposted time and again on Facebook, the movement unified around a tragic story that was emblematic of the political and economic frustration of the people.

Similarly, in Egypt, the rallying call to occupy Tahrir Square came from a simple Facebook status update that was reposted and reposted. A twenty six year old woman simply posted, “People, I am going to Tahrir Square.” Similarly, when Egyptian security forces brutalized and beat to death a twenty eight year old young man named Khaled Said in June of last year, social media users turned his death into a rallying cry for a movement. In memory of his death, a Facebook group entitled, “We are all Khaled Said” administered by a Google executive in Egypt provided an organizing platform that would eventually topple Hosni Mubarak’s thirty year reign in Egypt.

[By way of digression, I should mention that, at last year’s Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, I remember sitting with a colleague of mine who commented on the tradition of congregational delegates passing statements in response to a multitude of social issues. These are traditionally called Actions of Immediate Witness and Statements of Conscience. My colleague leaned over and told me that at this General Assembly, the delegates should be making “Tweets of Conscience” and “Facebook status updates of Immediate Witness.” His comment made me crack up. But, at that very moment the first young people in Egypt were joining the “We are Khaled Said” Facebook group.]

The power of social media cannot be understated. But, it can also be overstated. Last month Thomas Friedman published an article on contributing factors to the political uprisings. One of those contributing factors, he said, was the computer application known as Google Earth. Google Earth allows you to use satellite imaging to zoom in and see what is happening almost anywhere in the world. You can type in your coordinates and see what is going on in your neighbor’s backyard. Thomas Friedman claimed that the citizens of Bahrain used Google Earth to see a graphic representation of how the underclass lived in cramped, congested tenements while the elite lived in spacious estates. In response, one critic asked if Friedman was saying that it took satellites and a website for the people of Bahrain to understand the gross inequalities of wealth in their country. (And, by the way, this critic pointed out: the spacious tracts of land in Bahrain that you see on Google Maps are not controlled by the country’s ruling elite. Those are the expansive United States military bases.)

I do want to add a few words about the reception that these demonstrations and protests have had in the West. Many in the West have looked upon these demonstrations and uprisings with mixed feelings, while the voices of the radical right in our country have called the demonstrators fanatics and terrorists in so many words. This reception, whether cool or antagonistic, is due, I would argue, to a form of ethnocentric and often racist stereotyping that is known as Orientalism.

The term “Orientalism” was made popular by the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said, who wrote a book on the subject in the late 1970s. Said provocatively wrote, “Since the time of Homer every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and thoroughly ethnocentric.”

That is a bold statement. But, notice what one observer and commentator has written about the current political uprisings,
For years, intellectuals, mostly Arabs, have been confronted by the stereotypical, even racist, approach found in much of Western Orientalism… Under this approach, there is a contradiction between Arab and Muslim culture on the one hand, and democracy, equality and social justice on the other. Based on this contradiction, this form of Orientalism rejects any hope of democratization in the Arab world and justifies the prevalent tyranny…

According to this simplistic notion, limited to a dichotomy and tainted by the crude sense of supremacy in which this Orientalism is imprisoned, Arab society is conflicted between the forces of undemocratic political Islam and those of oppressive, despotic regimes. Terms such as democracy and social justice [it is suggested] cannot exist in Arab society because of the cultural obstacle that exists.
You should note that in the case of the invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq, failures to establish a working democratic government in short order were blamed on the populations of those countries themselves. They’re incapable of democracy, it was suggested. I think we see the same kind of Orientalism, the same kind of skeptical “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude among many in our own country.

This attitude, whatever you may think of it, should cause us to pause, to reflexively look at ourselves, to ask ourselves, “Are we qualified to be the supreme arbiters of what constitutes functional democracy?” Who was it that the Bible said should cast the first stone?

But, what we have seen, no matter where the future course of human events in North Africa takes us, is the fall of a corrupt 23 year regime in Tunisia, the fall of a corrupt and abusive 30 year regime in Africa, and, as we speak, the increasingly likely fall of a brutal 40 year regime in Libya. In the first two cases, Tunisia and Egypt, regime change happened with relative peacefulness. In Libya, the course of political change has taken a much more violent turn. Even so, there have certainly been much more violent regime changes. We should know.

The future, as always, is as of yet unwritten. There will be no utopia. There will continue to be struggle. But, the future does hold promise. It is important for us as people of faith to affirm the promise that the future holds.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Befuddled by the Bracket

On Sunday night the bracket for the NCAA “March Madness” Tournament was released. Last year I posted a number of my predictions for the tournament on my blog. I made my picks arrogantly. I oozed self-confidence. I embodied cool self-assurance. I paid for my impudence. Pride goeth before the fall.

Last year I predicted a big tournament from the Big East. Of the 8 teams that conference sent to the tournament, half suffered major upsets in the opening round, and only two were still playing on the tournament’s second weekend. Only West Virginia, which made the Final Four, outperformed their seeding. My bracket was busted.

This year I fill out my bracket without any hint of confidence. I’m second guessing myself on all my predictions. I may not have the power to predict the future, but that won’t stop me from trying.

Here are ten things I think will happen in the NCAA tournament. Let the prognosticating begin:

1) Wisconsin beats Belmont handily
At first glance, it hardly seems a stretch to predict that a 4-seed will beat a 13-seed. However, this is one of the most commonly predicted first round upsets. Belmont finished the season with a 30-4 record and was the class of the less-than-competitive Atlantic Sun conference. Wisconsin finished the season with an embarrassment of a game in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament. They scored an anemic 33 points against a hungry Penn State team fighting for its life. What’s lost in this story is that they played good defense, holding the Nittany Lions to only 36 points. Wisconsin will play to restore their reputation. They’ll be Belmont by over 20 points.
Result: Correct. While Wisconsin didn't win by 20, they did lead by double-digits for the last ten minutes of the game, including being up 19 with a minute and a half remaining before easing up.
Score: 1 for 1

2) Villanova beats George Mason
Of the 11 teams that the Big East is sending to this year’s NCAA tournament, no team is playing like they want to be there less than Villanova. They ended the season on a 5 game losing streak with the last loss coming against the University of South Florida in the first round of the Big East tournament. However, the first four losses all came against top-25 teams. George Mason was the Cinderella story back in 2006 when they made an unlikely Final Four run. They’ll have to look back on those days fondly. They are making a first round exit this year.
Result: Incorrect. Villanova followed up on a disappointing regular season and a disappointing Big East tournament with a first round exit in the tournament.
Score: 1 for 2

3) All the fives survive
It is a popular theory among bracket pickers that you have to have a 12-seed knocking off a 5-seed in the first round. Not this year. I like Vanderbilt, West Virginia, Kansas State, and Arizona in their first round matchups. They will all win in the opening round of the tourney.
Result: Incorrect. Three of the four 5-seeds did win. However, Richmond did knock off Vanderbilt in the opening round.
Score: 1 for 3

4) BYU does not make it past the first weekend
I won’t go as far as to predict that Wofford is going to beat BYU in the opening round in Denver. (I don’t even know where Wofford is?) However, BYU will lose to either St. John’s or Gonzaga in the second round.
Result: Incorrect. BYU won their first two games and went on to play in the Sweet 16 on the second weekend of the tournament.
Score: 1 for 4

5) Michigan State reaches the Sweet 16
Michigan State is one of the toughest stories in basketball this year. They started out the season ranked as the number 2 team in the country. Playing one of the nation’s toughest schedules, with 19 games against teams that made it to the NCAA tournament, Michigan State scuffled. I’m betting on redemption. They one of only two double-digit seeds that I think will make it out of the first weekend.
Result: Incorrect. Michigan State lost in the first round.
Score: 1 for 5

6) And so does Florida State
The other team is Florida State. I’m betting on Florida State handling an underwhelming Texas A&M team in the opening round and then defeating Notre Dame in the second round.
Result: Correct. Florida State defeated Texas A&M and Notre Dame, but then lost to an upstart VCU squad in the Sweet 16
Score: 2 for 6

7) No “Cinderellas” in the big dance
I define a “Cinderella” as a team that isn’t from a BCS conference (Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, Pac 10, and SEC) that wins 2 or more games against better-seeded teams. This year there will be no Davidson, no George Mason, and no Cornell.
Result: Incorrect. With an 8-seed and a 11-seed in the Final Four, 2011 was the year of the Cinderella. In fact, Virginia Commonwealth defeated a team from the Pac-10 in a play-in game before reeling off upset victories against teams from the Big East, Big 10, ACC, and Big 12.
Score: 2 for 7

8) Connecticut keeps its streak alive
How exactly does one predict Connecticut’s performance in the tournament? No team enters March Madness hotter, or more exhausted. Last week they won five games in five days, prevailing in the Big East tournament and defeating formidable foes such as Georgetown, Pitt, Syracuse, and Louisville. Some have said that this streak means they are over-seeded. Some have said that they are going to run out of steam. I say they will ride Kemba Walker’s hot hand to at least 3 more victories.
Result: Correct. No team ended the season hotter than Connecticut. They followed up on a five game winning streak in the Big East tournament by winning all six games in the NCAA tournament and a National Championship.
Score: 3 for 8

9) Kansas wins it all…
That’s my pick. Write it down.
Result: Incorrect. Kansas made it to the Elite 8 but lost to VCU.
Score: 3 for 9

10) …or do they?
But, let’s just assume for a second that Kansas slips up. Let’s assume that they fall somewhere along the way. (It’s been known to happen.) If Kansas trips up, it will be in a loss to Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals. If KU doesn’t make it to the championship game, Louisville will.
Result: Very incorrect. Louisville had the worst showing of any team in the tournament, losing in the opening round to Morehead State.
Score: 3 for 10

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Testimony: "I Stand with Planned Parenthood"

Yesterday I spoke at the “I Stand With Planned Parenthood” press conference and rally in Topeka. The Kansas legislature is considering numerous pieces of anti-choice, anti-woman’s health legislation. The piece of legislation I spoke about is one being taken up on both the Federal and State level that would defund Title X and make Planned Parenthood ineligible to receive federal funding.

Good afternoon. My name is The Reverend Thom Belote. I am the minister of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Overland Park, Kansas. I am proud to stand with Planned Parenthood. I minister in a tradition that has long been at the forefront of the struggle for women’s rights; Susan B. Anthony was one of our own. A tradition that has emphasized the need for public health; Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross was one of our own.

I stand here today to express my outrage at the proposed legislation in Kansas and in Washington D.C. that would seek to defund Planned Parenthood. This legislation is economically foolish, politically irresponsible, and morally bankrupt.

Public health is good economic policy. Preventative screenings for breast and cervical cancer, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, birth control counseling, and health education: these create a healthy society and save money in the long run. These are worthy investments. But, I don’t stand up here today and speak as an economist. I speak as a member of the clergy. This legislation is not only bad public policy. This legislation is immoral.

We face a budget crisis here in Kansas and in our country.* The question before us is this: on whose backs are we going to balance this budget? This legislation is clear. It says, “We choose to balance the budget on the backs of women and children, on the backs of teens and young adults and new moms, and on the backs of the working class, the middle class, and the poor.”

Defunding Planned Parenthood would have a body count. This legislation is lethal. It will mean young women dying unnecessarily of cancer that could have been caught with screenings. It will mean public health epidemics. It will mean lives ruined as young people are denied the education and the resources to make healthy reproductive choices.

The Kansas legislature and the US House of Representatives are choosing a path of balancing the budget on the backs of women and children, students and workers, the young and the poor. They have chosen not to balance the budget by forcing corporations with billions in profits to pay even the same in taxes that regular citizens pay. They have chosen not to stop the rich from funneling their money into tax shelters and off shore accounts.

Representative Lance Kinzer and his backers in Topeka and U.S. Representatives Yoder, Huelskamp, Jenkins, and Pompeo have shown contempt for the welfare of their constituents. They give the tax breaks to the wealthy while services are cut to the needy. They take care of their deep pocketed donors while they close their eyes to the struggles and to the lives of their constituents. They are derelict in their duties. And make no mistake: these cuts will terrorize the citizens of this state. It is a declaration of warfare against women and children and the vulnerable in our midst. What Muammar Gaddafi does to his people with planes and machine guns, these legislators do to our own people by abolishing societal safety nets and social services.

Jewish and Christian traditions teach us that we have a duty to look out for each other. That we are to be sisters and brothers to each other. That it is a moral obligation to heal the sick. That it is a sacred duty to take care of the vulnerable. These traditions are clear: It is an abomination to exploit the vulnerable. Thou shalt not sell out the needy for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals. (Amos 8:6) Thou shalt not sell out teens and college students and new moms and their children. Thou shalt not hazard the lives of the women who count on health centers for preventative health screenings, testing, and life-saving information and resources.

The Preamble of the Constitution of the United States tells us that the role of government is to help establish a more perfect union and to promote the general welfare. It is politically irresponsible and morally indefensible to cut these services and to endanger the lives of the citizens of Kansas.

[* Of course, this is not really about balanced budget. That is just a term of convenience. It is about transfers of wealth and it’s about a demented vision of a society in which government has no responsibility for the common good. In Wisconsin, a budget deficit created by providing tax breaks to the extremely wealthy has provided a convenient excuse for raiding the pensions of government employees and attacking unions. In Arizona, a budget deficit created by providing tax breaks to the extremely wealthy led the state to choose to make Medicaid recipients ineligible for organ transplants (as well as numerous other medical and dental services.) Several of the Medicaid recipients who were dropped from transplant waiting lists have already died.]