Monday, May 30, 2011

Exporting Hate: Lethal American Meddling in Uganda

Lou Engle’s gravelly voice catches and his face contorts. He looks perpetually as if he is about to be overcome with emotion. He is wearing a yellow, short-sleeve, button-down shirt. He is the definition of middle-aged with a bushy moustache and a receding hairline of sandy brown hair.

When he appears on the video, it is jarring. He looks very much out-of-place. Lou Engle stands on a stage in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, warning a sea of African faces about the dangers of the so-called “homosexual agenda.” With crocodile tears he tells the audience that gays are trying to hurt the nation of Uganda and hurt families.

Lou Engle appears in a documentary entitled Africa’s Last Taboo. The documentary takes you across the continent of Africa, exploring the rising tide of violent homophobia fueled by religious leaders and government officials. In church on Sunday, May 29, we showed a segment of this documentary dealing with homophobia in Uganda. (You can watch parts of this documentary on-line here.)

When he’s not stirring up hate in Uganda, Lou Engle spends his time spreading his Christian theocratic vision across the United States. Engle is the lead minister of the (unfortunately-named) International House of Prayer, located in the Kansas City suburb of Grandview, Missouri. He is also the organizer of an organization known as The Call, which hosts large prayer rallies espousing his politicized faith. Engle was heavily involved in helping California to pass Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that repealed same-sex marriage. Lou Engle is one of a large number of conservative religious leaders and politicians who have spent years working to try to transform Uganda into a Christian theocratic state.

In 2008 journalist Jeff Sharlet released the book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. The book deals with a secretive organization in Washington D.C. that operated a house on C Street – incorporated as a church so as to avoid taxation – that provided dormitory living to a large number of politicians and also served as a training ground for politicians, government officials, business leaders, and ministers with powerful ambitions. Current Kansas Governor and then-Senator Sam Brownback is featured prominently in Sharlet’s book. The Family overlaps with another organization called The Fellowship that has hosted a National Prayer Breakfast, a private religious event attended by every United States President since Eisenhower in 1953, that is every lobbyist’s dream and has also been a way to circumvent official United States diplomatic objectives.

Jeff Sharlet’s book exploded in 2009 as a pair of members of The Family, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and Nevada Senator John Ensign, got caught in seedy sex scandals. Suddenly, Jeff Sharlet became a regular guest on television and radio news programs. Sharlet’s book contains numerous mentions of Uganda and Uganda’s dictator Yoweri Museveni. Sharlet alleges that The Family targeted Uganda, as well as Kenya, as a base for corporate and political influence in East Africa. Sharlet writes,
The actual fate of Ugandan citizens was never [the Family’s] concern. [Congressman Joe] Pitts, in the Family tradition, may have had geopolitics on the mind: with Ethiopia limping along following decades of civil war and dictatorship and Somalia veering toward a Taliban state, tiny, Anglophone Uganda has become an American wedge into Islamic Africa. But the American uses and abuses of Uganda are still more cynical: Christian Africa has been appropriated for a story with which American fundamentalists argue for domestic policy, a parable detached from African realities, preached for the benefit of Americans.
Before United States politicians and religious leaders made homosexuality a key issue in Uganda, they attacked family planning and AIDS prevention programs. Sharlet writes,
Uganda, which following the collapse of Siad Barre’s Somalia became the focus of the Family’s interests in the African Horn, has been the most tragic victim of this projection of American’s sexual anxieties. Following implementation of one of the continent’s only successful anti-AIDS program, President Yoweri Museveni, the Family’s key-man in Africa, came under pressure from the United States to emphasize abstinence instead of condoms. Congressman Pitts wrote that pressure into law, redirecting millions of dollars from effective sex-ed programs to [abstinence only] programs. This pressure achieved the desired result: an evangelical revival in Uganda, and a stigmatization of condoms and those who use them so severe that some college campuses held condom bonfires… [F]ollowing the American intervention, the Ugandan AIDS rate, once dropping, nearly doubled.
Since the fall of 2009, the Ugandan government has on several occasions considered passing a draconian anti-homosexuality bill. This piece of legislation has never come to a vote, though it surely will be considered again. You can read the bill here. It contains provisions for life imprisonment or the death penalty for gays, lengthy prison sentences for people who do not report people known to be homosexuals, and harsh penalties for doctors, ministers, and businesses that knowingly serve gay individuals.

The bill was introduced by David Bahati, a rising star in Ugandan politics with close connections to the Family. One of the bill’s most vocal supporters, Martin Ssempa, was a close associate of Rick Warren, minister of the Saddleback Church in California.

The anti-homosexuality bill is so repulsive and indefensible that it has caused many American evangelical leaders and members of the Family to try to distance themselves from it. The internet is full of allegations and speculations as to where many of these American figures actually stand in terms of their support for the bill.

Rick Warren initially said, “It is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations.” Then he backtracked, issuing a video to attempt to distance himself from the bill and Ssempa, the controversial Ugandan pastor who had visited him numerous times in California. Ssempa fired back, calling him a wimp and a flip-flopper.

Even some of America’s most vicious and virulent anti-gay preachers have backed away from the Ugandan bill. Scott Lively, a disgusting preacher who leads an anti-gay group classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the author of a book, The Pink Swastika, which claims that homosexuals were the inventors of Nazism, has stated his opposition to the Ugandan law.

It seems clear to me that when folks like Lively and Lou Engle backtrack from fully supporting the Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill, they are talking out of both sides of their mouths. The homophobic violence in Uganda is so extreme that they want to have some evidence of plausible deniability lest they be implicated in genocide. On the other hand, their friends in Uganda say that they know that in their hearts, they support the persecution of homosexuals.

Despite what they say about the bill, I believe that American Evangelical leaders have blood on their hands in Uganda. Even if the government isn’t willing to kill gays, the mobs are certainly willing. Publications have outed dozens of gay Ugandans. Many have been murdered, including gay activist David Kato. The explosion of violence may have happened in Uganda, but American evangelicals helped to organize the mob and armed them with pitchforks and torches.

What can Americans do to help improve the situation in Uganda?

I think Americans can do several things. First, Americans need to make sure that the feet of American politicians and religious leaders continue to be held to the fire. Inquire about their activities in Uganda. Demand that they clarify their position on Uganda. Ask about travel. Scrutinize their interactions with Museveni, Bahati, Ssempa, or any other promoters of homophobia in Uganda. American ministers and politicians fear embarrassment. Pay attention and let them know you are paying attention.

Second, demand that the Obama administration use its diplomatic power to insist that Uganda protect the human rights of all of its citizens.

Finally, Americans can partner with and support organizations that are watching Ugandan political and religious leaders and Americans involved in Uganda.

Here is Jeff Sharlet being interviewed on The Rachel Maddow Show.
Here is an article by Jeff Sharlet from The Advocate.
Here is a video of a Kansas City activist organization protesting Lou Engle.
Here is a statement by Unitarian Universalist Associate President Peter Morales on Uganda.
Here is coverage of Uganda in the UU World.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Homily: "Prepare to Launch" [Delivered 5-15-11]

[This homily was preached as a part of our Coming of Age recognition service on May 15, 2011.]

When I was the age of our Coming of Age youth, I belonged to the model rocket club at my junior high school. To build a model rocket, you take a cardboard tube (short or long, skinny or fat) and then you glue on some fins made out of lightweight wood. Into one end of the rocket, you stuff a plastic parachute attached to the body of the rocket with a string, and you secure a plastic nose cone on the end and then you spray paint it. Into the other end of the rocket, you insert a blasting device that looks like a roll of quarters, but is filled with this horrible, sulfur-smelling, explosive power. You put the rocket on a launching pad, stick wires into the blasting device, and send an electric current through the wires to ignite the blasting device.

When you ignite the blasting device, it propels the rocket a couple hundred feet into the air, the nose cone comes off, the parachute comes out, and the rocket drifts peacefully back to earth. Well, that is what is supposed to happen when things go well. And, when I launched rockets, things didn’t always go well. I remember launching this sleek looking number that traveled perhaps thirty feet into the air and then turned abruptly and began heading at the group of students who were standing there watching. We all ducked for cover and the rocket sailed over our heads, slammed into the ground, and disintegrated on impact.

But, there was one rocket that failed above all others. This rocket was about four feet long and it looked powerful. You put not one, not two, but three blasting caps in it and the idea was that one would light the next which would light the next and would send the rocket several thousand feet into the sky. It looked like something that could possibly shoot down a large bird or a small aircraft. The day of our model rocket club meeting, I brought this giant rocket with me to school. It was too large to fit in my locker and so I had to carry it to all of my classes. I was very proud of this fierce-looking rocket, the largest and most powerful rocket in the history of the rocket club. After school, we went out to the sports fields. I placed the three blasting devices inside of the rocket. I put the wires in. I stood back. Way back. I pressed the launch button. Smoke began to billow out. And then more smoke. And then flames. The rocket burned on the launching pad. Finally, it jerked upwards and hung in the air about ten feet off the ground where it exploded and fell to earth in about seven flaming pieces. My classmates raced towards the burning pieces of my rocket and stomped out the flames.

I was crushed, embarrassed. As I picked up the charred remains of the rocket, I noticed that about eight inches of the cardboard tube remained intact. And, I had a couple of wood fins remaining. I returned to the next meeting of the model rocket club with a self-fashioned rocket that I was prepared to send on a mission of destruction. This thing had no parachute. The rocket had disappointed me once; the second time I would exact my revenge. It was not going to return. I placed the largest blasting device you could legally purchase in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts inside of it. I put it on the pad, stuck the wires in, and hit the button to launch it.

Zoom! It sailed off the launching pad, leaving behind just a faint hint of exhaust, and was gone into the stratosphere before we could even jerk our heads up to follow its path. In a split second it was out of sight. We usually chased after rockets to recover them, but this one was history. It was gone. A few weeks later I did discover a bright red fin about a half mile away from the school. The rest of the rocket was never found.

All this year, you have been in the Coming of Age program. What does it mean to come of age? It doesn’t mean that when you go home today, your parents will have packed up your stuff and will say to you, go get a job and an apartment, it is time for you to live on your own now. You wouldn’t do very well. Some of you really wouldn’t do very well. Does Coming of Age mean that you are now all adults? No. Not really.

What it means is that you are and will be transitioning into a time in your life in which the choices you make and the decisions you decide will become a lot more serious, a time in your life in which you’ll be asked to be responsible in the face of expanding freedoms.

Over the next five years of your life there will be all sorts of important rites of passage: you’ll go to a new school that will ask you for greater levels of responsibility. You’ll have the responsibility that comes with learning how to drive a car. When you turn 18 there will be a lot of choices, including where you want to live, for whom you will vote, what you want to try to do with your life, and what you want to become. And, all along the way, other questions will present themselves for you to figure out. You’ll face questions about the types of friends you’ll want to have, the types of relationships and whether to go along and do what the crowd is doing, You’ll have to make your own decisions about right and wrong, good choices and bad choices, choices with a moral dimension.

So, how exactly has this year prepared you for any of this? Well, we hope that your beliefs, your beliefs about right and wrong and good and bad, your beliefs about your place in the world, and your beliefs about justice and fairness will guide you as you face all these decisions and responsibilities. But, more than that, we hope that you will apply some of the same resources you used this year in thinking about big questions. We hope that you will work hard at finding good answers to the important questions and serious choices that you’ll be faced with. The questions are deep and they are hard: what does it mean to live well? What kind of person do I want to be? What responsibility do I have to help change the world?

Now remember, when we asked you to think carefully about your beliefs, we didn’t lock you in a room with a crayon and piece of paper and tell you to figure it all out by yourself. No, you thought about these questions while you were surrounded by peers, with the help of a mentor, and teachers, and religious professionals, and the members of this religious community. We provided you with resources, information about others who have asked important questions and answered those questions well. And, we encouraged you to trust your own conscience, to listen to that small, still voice inside of you.

One of the things that I hope you learned this year is that Unitarian Universalism doesn’t tell you that you can believe anything you want. You can’t believe anything you want. It doesn’t work like that. Try to believe that men and women shouldn’t have equal rights. Try to believe that it is OK for people of one race to have more rights than people of another race. Try to believe that the world is flat or that the world is only 6,000 years old. Try to believe that God will harshly punish people who belong to the wrong religion.

Hopefully, you can’t believe these things. You couldn’t believe them even if you wanted to. Hopefully, your own conscience, your own sense of right and wrong, tells you that you can’t accept these things. Hopefully, you say, “That is not what I believe. I believe something else.” And hopefully, in the years to come, you will have the strength of character to say, “That injustice is not right.” “How people are being treated is not right.” “That thing you are asking me to do is not safe and is not healthy.”

You see, with Coming of Age, we are preparing you to launch. We are preparing you to launch. And, we want to provide you with a few things: a powerful blasting cap that will send you far into the mysteries of the world. But we also want to provide you with a strong parachute that will help you to land smoothly and safely. And, we also want to provide you with some fins that will help steer you in good directions for the entire duration of your flight.

We want you to launch. We do not want you to fizzle out and sit there on the launching pad. We don’t want you to explode, to begin to lift off and then crash and burn. We don’t want to pack you so full of gunpowder that you disappear. We don’t want to lose you. We care that you are Unitarian Universalists.

This launching thing, it isn’t easy. It is a difficult balance, providing enough propulsion that you will go far in life and enough steering and enough of a parachute that you will go safely.

So, as you prepare to launch, take a moment to really think about where you want the rocket of your life to take you. Think of the heroic Unitarian and Universalist women and men whose lives you studied. They worked for justice. They fought for equality. They charted a new path for themselves, doing amazing work to help their fellow sisters and brothers. Do you want your life to be like theirs?

Take a moment to think about what you’ve learned and discovered this year. What matters most deeply to you? What does God ask of you? What is asked of us as Unitarian Universalists?

You’ve come of age. You’ve entered this next chapter of your life in which you will have to answer a lot of important and crucial questions. But, you won’t have to face those questions alone.

To infinity and beyond, kids.

When Prophecy Fails

To tell you the truth, I did not pay much attention to all the talk about the eccentric and rich minister who convinced a lot of people to believe that the rapture was going to occur last weekend.

However, an email message from a colleague of mine reminded me of a book that I had read back in college on this sort of thing. You probably have never heard of Leon Festinger, but you are probably familiar with the term "cognitive dissonance" which he coined. "Cognitive Dissonance" is a term that describes the uncomfortable tension we experience when our thoughts and actions do not match, or when we think two thoughts at the same time that are in tension with each other. According to Festinger's theory, we will seek out ways to eliminate the feeling of cognitive dissonance, whether by changing our attitudes, by changing our behaviors, or by seeking out new information that helps our cognition to move from dissonance to consonance.

Leon Festinger, a social psychologist, decided to test his theory in a fascinating way. In the mid-1950s he had a group of his graduate students go "under cover" and infiltrate an obscure religious cult in the Chicago area that was predicting the end of the world. This religious cult was led by a woman who believed that she received transmissions from aliens from the planet Clarion. These messages announced that a flood was coming that was going to wipe out the world, but that the aliens were going to come in their flying saucers and rescue the followers of this woman who received the aliens' transmissions. When the flying saucers failed to arrive and the flood failed to come, Festinger's graduate students studied the reactions. None of the cult members rejected their leader. They all stayed. They all accepted a clarifying transmission that announced that the date had been changed.

Festinger published these findings in his 1956 book When Prophecy Fails. What he basically said, if I remember correctly, is that it was a lot easier for the prophet's followers to accept a new prophecy with a different date than it was to admit error and that their actions and thoughts had been a mistake.

I would have to believe that Festinger's book was in heavy circulation at research libraries across the country during the last week. If Festinger is still right, here is how the most devout believers will respond to this most recent failure of prophecy: they won't reject their faith or their belief in the rapture or even their trust in the guy who said that the rapture was coming. They will embrace new beliefs in order to transform their dissonance to consonance. They will accept that this was done by God to test their faith and that they passed the test. Or, they will continue to believe that the rapture is coming; they'll just figure that date was a bit off. (Seemingly) paradoxically, they'll become more devout, more certain.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Feeling No Need to Comment on Bin Laden

On Monday, May 2, Anne and I started our morning, as we often do, with a brisk morning walk around Loose Park. On our way home we passed a Kansas City Star newspaper box and saw big bold black headline: “BIN LADEN DEAD.” I went home, showered, dressed, and got in my car to drive out to the church.

My car radio, as it often is, was set to one of the local sports talk radio stations. The radio personalities were playing audio from the Sunday night baseball game between the Mets and the Phillies in which fans had learned about Bin Laden’s death during the bottom of the ninth inning and had broken into chants of “USA! USA!” The sports talk radio personalities said something about how this brought us all together as Americans, that even people as polarized as Mets and Phillies fans could come together. I changed the station to NPR.

At church I logged onto Facebook and saw two comments by parishioners. One of our high school youth commented that it didn’t feel right to celebrate anyone’s death, even the death of someone who was responsible for murdering some 4,000 people. Another parishioner, who likes to post in Haiku, wrote, “Vengeance is mine, says / Some people’s Lord, but not mine / We sow love and peace.” The high school student was referring to his ambivalence, not about the death of Bin Laden, but about the type of response his death garnered. Likewise, my parishioner who wrote in Haiku was speaking more broadly, I believe. He was critiquing a worldview that equates justice with vengeance and retribution.

But here is my point. When I read these two posts I nodded and thought, “My parishioners get it. They are thinking about this big news event in ways that are reflective and thoughtful. They are doing good theology.” (Small sample size, I know.) And then, the next thought followed: I don’t feel any need to offer any comment on Bin Laden’s death.

My own impulse not to speak, not to make a declaration, not to offer commentary seems to stand in stark contrast to a media-infused world in which everyone seemingly feels compelled to offer their own “take” on the news. What does Bin Laden’s death mean for al-Qaeda and the future of terrorism? How did Obama handle this situation? What will it mean for Obama politically? How do we feel about those spontaneous celebratory gatherings in front of the White House and elsewhere?

And then, the reactions seemed to head in at least two different directions. First, conspiracy theorists began to question everything. What actually happened in Pakistan? What about the burial at sea? Can we get the long-form death certificate? Soon, the conspiracy theorists began to be drowned out by an impulse to collectively mass-remember September 11, 2001. People, when they gathered, began to talk about where they were and what they did and how they felt back in 2001. In some ways, this mass remembering was pre-emptive. This September will be the ten year anniversary of September 11, 2001 and preparations to remember had already begun.

Let me bracket this idea of collective remembrance and return to the question of whether I ought to say anything about Bin Laden’s death. Are my parishioners expecting me to say anything? Is there some aspect of this that they are deeply questioning or trying to make sense out of? Come Sunday, will those who join us for worship on Mother’s Day, long time parishioners and first time visitors alike, come expecting to hear something about Bin Laden’s death? I had really assumed not, but now I’m questioning that assumption because I hear from several ministers I know and love that they feel obligated to respond to Bin Laden’s death in some way in the worship service.

Since everyone else seems to want to editorialize – some in conversation, some in 140-character tweets, some in meandering blog posts – I reluctantly offer these thoughts. I offer them as a form of procrastination while I should be preparing my Mother’s Day sermon. And, I offer them as a way of clearing my throat, so to speak, because I really don’t plan to say much of anything about this on Sunday.

My best insight on the events of the past week is this. I’m quite struck by the narrative that has been created. The story begins with the September 11, 2001 attacks. The story goes on for a decade. The story reaches its climax with the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and his death. The story ends with chanting, celebration, and remembrance. What began on September 11, 2001 is now ended. This chapter is closed.

I utterly reject this narrative. It didn’t start on 9/11/2001. Years earlier, Bin Laden had been responsible for hundreds of deaths in the bombings of embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Bill Clinton had retaliated, launching cruise missile strikes against targets in Sudan and Afghanistan. And that isn’t really when “it” started either. I commend to you the brilliant and challenging BBC documentary from 2004, The Power of Nightmares, that traces the parallel rise of both Islamic terrorism and American neo-conservatism as political philosophies. The Power of Nightmares begins with the origins of both strains of thought as reactions against liberalizing modernism, connects their key players in the 1980s as they banded together to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and then explains how each side has made the other.

However, if we must use the death of Bin Laden to bookend an era that supposedly started on September 11, 2001, I would suggest that it is most fitting to ask a question of this decade: What have we become?

What have we become?

We launched a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and then lost focus on that war in order to launch a war against Iraq. With unclear and constantly changing objectives that might be described as Sisyphean or Quixotic, we spent hundreds of billions of dollars and devastated our economy, sacrificed the lives of thousands of members of the US military, brought back tens of thousands of soldiers suffering from bodily injuries and mental illnesses, and took the lives of countless civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though combat operations have ended in Iraq, we continue to maintain an expensive military presence there as the war in Afghanistan approaches the ten year mark.

We continue to detain people at Guantanamo Bay without any clear plan of what to do with them. As a nation we embraced torture as well as secret and indefinite detainment. Our government waterboarded and devised methods of psychological torture. We witnessed the shame of Abu Ghraib and Bagram. We outsourced torture.

We passed the US Patriot Act, spied on our own citizens, and created a surveillance society.

And, that is why I don’t particularly feel any inclination to chant or celebrate in the streets or sigh any sighs of relief or feel a sense of closure. I’m not shedding tears for Bin Laden. I’m soberly reflecting on the steep cost of all we’ve been through: the cost in lives, the cost in human suffering, the economic cost and who has had to and will have to bear that cost, the cost to our freedoms and liberties, and, of course, the moral cost and the cost to our humanity.

Not that I really feel as though I have much to say.