Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Theology for Radicals

I’m reflecting on some of the “disconnects” in American life. One is the glaring gap between personal faith and public policy.  How is it possible that the most overtly religious nation in the developed world has the greatest gulf between rich and poor? Why does a country with so many churches imprison more of its people than anywhere else on earth (and still insist on inflicting the death penalty)? What is our justification for resisting universal health care?    

Americans are among the most generous people on earth. They are also highly practical and love problem solving. Given accurate information they usually want to do the right thing.

But because our social lives are so separate (our places of worship, schools, and neighborhoods are often defined by race or class), we build up images of fellow Americans that are prejudiced or inaccurate at best. Our information sources are increasingly narrowly based and tend to reinforce our existing biases. They don’t challenge us to think beyond our own experience or viewpoint.

So a person who volunteers time and talent to helping earthquake victims in Haiti, or building churches or schools in Central America, or who fosters a dozen children, may also advocate public policies in their home town that deny education to immigrant children, reduce access to health care for those who can least afford it, or cut mass transportation to suburbs where most available entry-level jobs are located.   

A few days ago I was sitting with Ben Campbell of the Richmond Hill Retreat Center and some other local Christian leaders discussing urban ministry. Ben reckons that ninety percent of new churches in the Richmond region are non-denominational. There’s a growing interest in urban ministry among committed evangelicals in these flourishing new congregations in the ever-expanding suburban areas. This is a potentially powerful force for good. 

However, Campbell says that for the most part these dedicated, mostly young Christians have no knowledge of social issues or the history of racism and exclusion, no understanding of tax policies, or of the factors that impact housing, public education, and transportation. 

At the other end of the spectrum, many mainline liberal churches are actively engaged in social issues but have lost focus on core moral and spiritual truths. They are not providing an environment that is attractive to a new generation of Christians. In addition, failure to root social justice efforts in the bedrock of a strong inner life and lived-out values can endanger the most idealistic efforts. 

In The Beloved Community, Charles Marsh calls burnout “the activist’s occupational hazard.”  He points to the early days of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC ) when, starting in 1960, thousands of white students came to the South to work for reconciliation and justice alongside African Americans. The movement, he writes, pursued a form of discipleship that was “life affirming, socially transformative, and existentially demanding: a theology for radicals.”  Resisting the “cultural paradigm of efficiency," it made time for “reverie and solitude and for rituals that were refreshingly unproductive. A certain kind of contemplative discipline was an important disposition in building community and enabling trust.” 

What would America look like if mainline liberal Christians deepened their spiritual lives and their moral accountability, and if conservative evangelicals committed themselves to a strategic engagement for justice?  We might see a theology for radicals that could lead to a profound transformation of the social and economic landscape.   

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Trust in Investing

If you are feeling cynical about the world of finance and investment you should talk with Patrick Davis.  He’s a 25-year-old senior associate with the Calvert Foundation, a Washington-based non-profit that aims to maximize the flow of capital to disadvantaged communities. The organization enables investors – large and small – to earn a financial return while lifting families out of poverty.

Patrick’s enthusiasm is infectious. He believes we need to fundamentally rethink our relationship to money and to simultaneously build a new economy on the principles of sustainability and social equity.  And he thinks the time is ripe for such a revolution. He says investors are seeing the writing on the wall: “Unless we address environmental degradation, unemployment, and the education gap, even the most powerful corporations will have no customers.”

Long before the Bernie Madoff scandal and other Ponzi schemes made headlines there has been a structural disconnect in our economy that reinforces a disproportionate distribution of wealth. Patrick believes that the focus on short-term returns in the corporate and financial sectors has “produced a broken economy built on perpetual distrust and resentment.” 

Over a sandwich at Potbelly near his Bethesda, Maryland office, he told me, “We need to talk about the larger ecosystem, get away from quarter-to-quarter earnings and think about sustainability.” With degrees in Economics, Government & Politics, and a minor in Latin American Studies, Patrick was looking for a middle ground between wealth management and non-profits. The Calvert Foundation, which offers an alternative to traditional philanthropy or strictly market-based investing, was the perfect fit. 

According to its website, Calvert investors have put nearly $200 million to work in 250 community organizations in all 50 states and over 100 countries. These investors are supporting a diversified mix of high-impact organizations involved in affordable housing, microfinance, Fair Trade coffee, small business development, as well as charter schools, daycare centers and rehabilitation clinics.  Investors and supporters have helped build or rehabilitate over 17,000 homes, create 430,000 jobs in the U.S. and in developing countries, and finance over 25,000 cooperatives, social enterprises, and community facilities.

Last year, Patrick spent two weeks helping with the rebuilding efforts in Haiti. It was, he says, a life-changing experience.

Now he’s planning a workshop in October, as part of The Trust Factor 2011 program in Washington, to spread the word about “impact investing” to a lay audience. This approach produces “blended value – financial, social, and environmental returns.”  Patrick wants to demonstrate the role of “trustbuilding amongst financial advisors and clients, trustbuilding in local communities, and broadly a restoration of trust in the economy for the public.”

My guess is that there are thousands of talented people of Patrick’s generation who share his passion for a new vision in the financial sector where returns are “built on real assets that are visible in the community, rather than inflated bookkeeping and complicated financial arrangements.”  

And that makes me feel a whole lot more hopeful about the future.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Promise Made Under Texas Live Oaks

Mark and Ariane are married. They exchanged their vows shaded by ancient live oaks on July 3. Even at 7pm the Texas sun kept the temperature hovering in the high nineties. In a touch of thoughtful creativity, the order of service was printed on fans. 

A guitarist played Bach's Air on the G String. Parents read Letters to a Young Poet and Pathways  by Rainer Maria Rilke; two Celtic prayers by David Adam; Blessing for a Marriage by James Dillet Freeman; the Prayer of St Francis; and Litany by Billy Collins.  

Susan and I now have a second daughter-in-law and we are thrilled beyond words to welcome Ari to the Corcoran clan. As the mother of three sons, Susan appreciates the increased female presence in the family.

The day before the ceremony, seventy family members and friends gathered for a rehearsal lunch at Torchy's Tacos at the Trailer Park Eatery, one of Mark and Ari's favorite Austin haunts. It was a joyous multicultural, multigenerational celebration.

Despite the odds, marriage and faithful relationships based on mutual trust are still the ideal to which most of our sons' friends aspire.  Mark and Ari’s promise and commitment to each other:
“Loving what I know of you,
Trusting what I don’t yet know,
With respect for your integrity
And faith in your abiding love for me.”

The day after the wedding I came across a column by Ross Douthat in the New York Times entitled More Perfect Unions  “Institutions tend to be strongest when they make significant moral demands, and weaker when they pre-emptively accommodate themselves to human nature,” he writes.

"A successful marital culture depends not only on a general ideal of love and commitment, but on specific promises, exclusions and taboos….The hardest promises to keep are often the ones that keep people together."

During the wedding festivities Andrew, Mark's brother and best man, warned Ari of certain genetic Corcoran traits: selective hearing, endless capacity for argument, and obsession with sports (watching, that is). "Don't blame them, it’s not their fault; they were made that way." But he concluded with one important Corcoran quality: "We find the greatest women in the world and we never let them go."

I say amen to that.