Archive for July, 2013

Fracking: Putting our House out of Order

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

The frack rig's hydraulics drive chemicals and fluids deep into rock layers, causing fractures.Earlier this month I visited my parents in their home along the Ohio River. They’ve owned 75 acres of open fields and hillside forest since 1969.  From their front door you can see an island that serves as a refuge for osprey and bald eagles, the hills of West Virginia, and a coal-burning power plant. It’s a paradox of sorts – the beauty of the Mid-Ohio Valley and the pollution from chemical and power plants. It’s a region that has learned to live with both a successful economy for those employed in well-paying engineering positions at “the plant,” and with an economy that is unsustainable when those factories go out of business. I can remember some families who had previously been ensconced in the middle class receiving free lunch because the coal mines closed or the oil refinery moved away. While such a paradox is not new to the place I call home, it is a history that can oft be forgotten.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me when my father said he’d been approached by an energy company about running a frack line across the northern line of our family property. Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, is a process by which a mix of water, sand, and various chemicals is pumped into the well at high pressure in order to create fissures in the earth through which gas can escape. Natural gas escapes through the fissures and is drawn back up the well to the surface, where it is processed, refined, and shipped to market. Any remaining wastewater returns to the surface.

The process of fracking creates problems that are both environmental and economic. First, the sheer pressure of the process literally causes the geological formation to crack. Sixth grade science class taught me that when geological formations crack something catastrophic can happen; specifically, earthquakes.

Second, water, sand, and chemicals mixed together aid the fracking process. Upon completion of the process, the water and chemicals flow back to the surface, potentially contaminating ground water. Several studies suggest that fracked formations have contaminated drinking water aquifers with methane, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.  In addition to the potential contamination of drinking water aquifers, the practice of fracking, which requires millions of gallons of water, often lowers the water table in aquifers. This greatly reduces the availability of well water and also degrades its quality by allowing more particles to concentrate in what is left in the aquifer.

West Virginia, Western Pennsylvania, and Western New York are prime locations for fracking because of the gas-rich Marcellus Shale found there. The same holds true for Utica Shale in Southern Ohio. Jobs related to hydraulic fracking in these regions have grown exponentially over the past five years, and not all of these are blue collar jobs. As more and more landowners, like my parents, are approached regarding mineral rights and rights of way, lawyers with experience in federal and state natural resource law and financial advisors with an eye to sustainable investment of royalties are finding themselves as skilled laborers in the oil and gas industry.  Anecdotally, one friend said there is no rental housing available in his town because it’s been snagged by the oil and gas companies.

While my heart aches for a beautiful land, my mind cannot stop thinking of an oil and gas boom that could deepen the chasm between the haves and the have-nots. Those who have the ability to own land are already a step ahead of those whose financial, or family, history has not provided them with acres of land and minerals below.

History has shown us the economic instability of invasive extraction. In the late 1800s, Bramwell, West Virginia was the center of coal mining in the southern part of the state. At its height, Bramwell was home to 13 millionaires, per capita more than any other place in the United States at the time. (The high school basketball team was even called the “Millionaires”!) In 2000, the per capita income was $13,410 with 15.7% of the population living below the poverty line. Invasive mineral extraction has never proved to be a long term economic option. We cannot embrace short term economic windfalls to guide our path to environmental degradation. When God calls us to be stewards of God’s creation, we must recognize that creation includes not only the environment around us, but the human beings who are marginalized through the dismembered relationships we have with the environment.

The Greek word oikos means house. It’s the root of our modern words ecology, economy, and is related to ekklesia, from which we get ecclesiology. All of those words have something in common – they’re about getting our house in order. I’ve come to realize that as my parents age, I’m going to help them do a lot of house-ordering. I firmly believe that fracking and pipelines for moving frack wastewater do not belong in the order of the household – or in the long-term sustainability of the community around it.  Energy independence cannot come at the risk of widening the economic gap and increasing unhealthy communities. It’s time to stop making people live in this paradox. Our future depends on it.

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Chett Pritchett is Interim Executive Director for the Methodist Federation for Social Action. He is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College and Wesley Theological Seminary, and is a member at Dumbarton UMC in Washington, DC.

Why We Fast for Guantanamo’s Closure

Monday, July 29th, 2013

The rationale for our fast to close Guantanamo Bay, as submitted to National Religious Campaign Against Torture:

As both the impetus and the consequences of Guantanamo Bay Detention Center become apparent, the grievousness of the error becomes more salient. Opponents to closure remain in early stages of grief: denial and bargaining. Some would change the concept of torture to suit their tastes or project justifying speculations onto the detainees. None can hope for a solution to extremism via means which are at all extreme; we claw and infect our ‘itch’ by doing so. The Constitution’s drafters placed limits on imprisonment not merely as perks for our citizenry but to indicate the patient, humane attitude crucial to ethical and tactical integrity. This is an issue of privilege’s weakness: our power demands restraint in excess of what can be expected from enemies or even allies. More than attacks, our own abuses pose greater threats to the nation’s future and sacrifice accountability to knee-jerk politics. Truncated solutions do not exist.

I am bereft of sufficient space to describe the opposition to closure in detail and, as well, to outline all of the fiscal and military reasons that Guantanamo has been a failed experiment. Simultaneously and as people of Faith, the essential kernel of why we condemn the facility and its practices is plain in the final sentence: "Truncated solutions do not exist". Peace cannot be created by a short-cut at the expense of decency. If my previous post taught me anything, it is that restorative justice allows the time to work in disciplined, nuanced, and exemplary ways. When Guantanamo Bay is finally closed, I hope we remember what happened there for a long while and recognize that we could not create Justice faster by forsaking principles at a convenient juncture. Fasting is a symbolic act of restraint and I think that the United States will need to 'fast' many times to cleanse itself of damage to its character, reputation, and sense of purpose. 

-JDG

A Lantern in the Murk: Interfaith Dialogue & Syria

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

Syria: Baathist and Revived Independence Flags, combined

 

The movement in Syria precipitated in the wake of Arab Spring activity elsewhere, beginning with massive nonviolent demonstrations in January of 2011. That is common knowledge. Resistance of any kind was swiftly, forcefully suppressed by Al-Assad’s Baathist regime and bringing the conflict and context into focus, even in its very midst, became an impossible errand. Fragmentation, I think, is a companion of ignorance and oppression; Syria is no exception. Though the Assad regime has always been secular, more concerned with power than orthodoxy, the religious (and ethnic) fissures of the region became high cards in the Baathist party’s hand, just as they had been for Ottoman and European administrations.

My colleagues in Occupied Palestine speculated that Syrian Christians, as a minority, may have been reluctant to see Assad’s absolute dictatorship stumble because they indirectly benefitted from the stability of the regime. Though far from being privileged, Syrian Christians had President Assad standing between them and exclusionary Islamist governments. In the power vacuum following Sadam Hussein’s fall in Iraq, many Chaldean Christians decided to migrate and Syrians might guess, perhaps rightly, that their counterparts would become second-class citizens in Iraq. At the same time, when minorities are endowed with protections, whether they be Kurds, Jews, Druze, Christians, or Shiite Muslims like Assad himself, resentment may brew in the Sunni majority. Not surprisingly, the most robust and well organized elements of the Syrian resistance are Sunni Islamists of varying tints.

Much can be said about the nationalist and international political ‘chemistry’ and reactions within and surrounding Syria. The dynamics of control in the middle-East are notoriously complex. Media, often operating  from blinding distances, may place familiar, simplistic tags onto events in order to preclude thinking about both ancient or developing nuances. Audiences may forget – or never know—that the protests began in a stew of liberation rhetoric: predominantly Arab Muslims who believe in secular democracy, just as in Tahrir Square (Egypt), and their neighbors too. These demographics are least visible in our news because they contradict long-running storylines; it is easier for news outlets to resell monolithic misconceptions about the region, especially when right-wing extremists do, in fact, exist. Worse, they have support from sects outside Syria.

WCC LogoThose groups and the regime, perhaps less obvious players too, could have a stake in deepening religious fissures ─ to the detriment of Syrians as a whole. I started following World Council of Churches (WCC) updates on the churches in Syria almost two years ago. Personnel have been murdered or taken captive as violence escalated, prompting the WCC General Secretary to forge positions, clarifications. Some group wants to aggravate a festering distrust. Since we are not angels hovering over those abductions, we cannot know if it is an extremist militia intending to scare the Church out of Syria or, rather, Baathist militia framing them, injecting the fragmentation which keeps resistance diffuse, tribal, and alien. It could be either and the consequences are dire.

With Syrian communities in splinters, the WCC’s relationship with Muslim clerics is a glowing lantern in the smokes of war. Because of ongoing interfaith dialogue, leaders from both faith traditions can bilaterally condemn violent acts as manipulative and reaffirm the common cause of a society for all Syrians. Too often, inter-faith work is understood as only theological when its purposes are also social and political. The beatitudes, from The Sermon on the Mount, identify peace-makers as off-spring of The Divine. Jesus stresses overcoming anger and being reconciled in his speech, where perfect orthodoxy does not merit much attention. Regardless of disagreements over the nature and law of God, people in many faiths cannot lack a relationship with one another without critically fragmenting their community. Everyone is at risk when we fail to build that trust and extend our hands in vulnerability long enough to make a vital connection.

Unfortunately, the conflict in Syria promises to get worse, according to analysis of June’s happenings. As the revolution became more religiously charged, the divisions became more and more inflamed, so that Assad can rely increasingly on foreign, sectarian allies. That picture is too complex for this article but we can turn to our own communities and identify the hairline fractures which, under pressure, turn into horrendous breakages. Through organizations like Shoulder-to-Shoulder, citizens of the United States can knit a community fabric stronger than the factions (political, religious, ethnic, and otherwise) who try to shatter our dream of full participation for all.

Meanwhile, our witness to Syria has to be one that supports Syria’s most vulnerable. Rather than standing with one ideology, every effort should be made to ensure the education, health, and safety of displaced children in order to teach them better ways: compassion, coexistence, and cohesion.  

Note: The flag at the top of the article reflects Syria's split; the flag with the red stripe and two green stars (left) is used by the current regime while the flag with the green stripe and three red stars (right) is a revived nationalist flag first used in 1932, now used by Syrian opposition forces.

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JD (John Daniel) Gore is a young adult missionary working through the General Board of Global ministries. JD serves Methodist Federation for Social Action as the 'Associate for Movement Building' and worked previously in Bethlehem for The Wi'am Center. JD is a product of the Michigan State Wesley Foundation and of greater West Michigan. He aspires to work for a culture of acceptance and collective responsibility through better dialogue and creative projects.

Color Blindness Cannot Be a Response to Racism

Sunday, July 14th, 2013

Last night, as I watched the announcement of the George Zimmerman jury, I closed my eyes in prayer.

I gave thanks for the jurors and their service – having served on a jury in the recent past, I can honestly say it is the most intellectually and emotionally draining experience I’ve ever encountered. I prayed for the family of Trayvon Martin and for the questions they still have that were not answered through the trial process. But most importantly, I prayed for a world in which we act as if race no longer matters.

Race matters, not because we live in an overtly racist society any longer. Race matters because racism is structural, hidden, and pervasive. The events of the past two weeks highlight the structural racism that is still present in American culture. The Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act and the media’s attempt to create division among people of racial and ethnic minorities highlights the glue that allows racism to continue to be structural, hidden, and pervasive: privilege. Or to be more direct: white privilege.

It is white privilege that allowed my 71-year-old father to state, “Well, I guess we can expect riots to begin soon.” His white privilege allows him to assume that the only response to injustice to African Americans is rioting.

It is white privilege that allowed Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to claim that the Voting Rights Act is a form or racial entitlement. In Shelby County v. Holder, Justice Scalia upheld this opinion, and along with his Supreme Court cohorts, referred the Act back to Congress for further review.

It is white privilege which states that racism is prejudice against the color of a person’s skin. Our privilege has let us believe this, and it is incorrect. Racism is prejudice PLUS privilege. Until we recognize the way in which our privilege (be it racial, economic, heterosexual) influences societal injustices, we will never be able to break the cycles we claim are detrimental to work of justice.

Our progressive theological movements are often wrapped in a shroud of white privilege. We want to take seriously Paul’s directive to the Galatians, that “in Christ there is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” We want to believe there are no longer differences, so we say, “We’re color blind, race isn’t an issue for us.”

To say that we are color bind Christians negates the experiences of evil, injustice, and oppression of millions of our Christian siblings. Progressive, white Christians must engage in working on our own white privilege, reflecting on how our lives benefit from the pervasive, hidden structures in society that create injustice for others.

But it’s not enough to reflect. We must take action and work in broad coalitions chip away at the structural injustices our friends and neighbors encounter. The Methodist Federation for Social Action encourages participation this August in Washington, DC surrounding the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice. We’ll also be launching a postcard campaign, encouraging Congress not to fail in their assigned task of reviewing the Voting Rights Act. If you want to participate in this campaign, let us know.

I said a prayer last night. And I will continue to pray, and witness, and take action so the memory of those whose lives have ended at the intersection of racism and violence might be remembered through the work of future generations.

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Chett Pritchett is Interim Executive Director for the Methodist Federation for Social Action. He is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College and Wesley Theological Seminary, and is a member at Dumbarton UMC in Washington, DC.

Someone’s Watching Over You: Faith & Surveillance

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Orwellian Birthday Party (clickable) Our conversation about surveillance starts by distinguishing safety from security-measures. Safety is the degree to which we are actually kept from harm. The resilience we find through Faith in God mitigates the harm we do to ourselves by anxiety and to each other in suspicion. The struggle to digest uncertainty, hurt, and worry is driving increased surveillance measures that threaten civil rights vital to a safe society.

We also need to separate tight security from secret, ubiquitous surveillance. The Transportation Security Administration perennially slows us at airports but TSA is part of our collective coping with the astronomically small, but real, possibility that a violent person would compromise our airplane. However extraneous or ludicrous, every security measure that happens in my sight is something I can consent to, not a violation to my right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure (Fourth Amendment). Yet when I found a note in my checked-baggage saying it had been searched “randomly” and that TSA was “not liable for any damages” to luggage locks, I felt differently. Whether such searches are legal or not, under current regulations, search without consent or warrant remains problematic, even contrary to the spirit of the United States constitution.

The National Security Agency [NSA] rarely impedes us on our way from point to point but they have collected data in virtual ubiquity and total anonymity for several years without consent and little transparency, using internet and phone records. Edward Snowden, a network administrator, was right to blow his whistle and flee to Hong Kong. These massive searches were thrown under the umbrella of ‘security’. After the story broke, an official offered some contrived number of ‘future terror plots’ foiled1; tautologies like these are unnerving. In addition to a case of ‘boiled frog’, we have an asbestos jacket: the unlikely threat of a fire (so-called terrorism) scares us into carcinogenic cloaks of surveillance. Now, government is acquiring the capacities for search and control that the nation’s founders foresaw as problematic. Loyalists called them traitors to the British Crown ~ one’s treason is another’s patriotism. Edward Snowden said via Britain’s The Guardian that, “[t]his country is worth dying for.”

Mainstream US journalism is more theatrical than illuminating and, doing what they do best,  Al-Jazeerah English is cannibalizing them. BBC is tepid but The Guardian has tiled an entire page with articles (“The NSA Files”). In this country, Snowden has been called “leaker” or, in blatant obfuscation, a “spy”. Time magazine’s recent cover erroneously characterized Edward Snowden (and Bradley Manning) as “hacktivist”. This is plainly inaccurate: he used legitimate pass-codes to access information – has Time’s staff been asleep for forty years, unaware of what computer hacking is? Media outlets always package their entertainment to suit audiences’ preconceptions but the overall climate of US media is so deficient in perspective that it, too, undermines safety to follow a ‘security’ narrative which began going astray decades ago.

But back to the fire: what about “terrorism”? Some caution is warranted but I think the NSA mega-data-glut makes us vulnerable to domestic (read “white”) extremism because processing too much information leads to heuristic profiling along dominant social narratives. Authorities invest more energy on immigrants and minorities, who learn to be distrustful of these structures, engendering self-fulfilling prophesy effects that create false leads; safety cannot be created from a climate of suspicion. Excess suspicion multiplies and entangles. Even if all of that is untrue, our security apparatus should never have the capacity to collect information on that scale. NSA is growing into a corrupt regime’s fondest fantasy. What we risk by less ‘security’ is far outweighed by what we are inviting by allowing surveillance on this scale, with or without transparency.

DC demonstration to limit NSA surveillance.

Though I might incur a label like “alarmist, I am far from a conspiracy theorist. The surveillance is happening. Though this administration, this congress, even NSA itself still fall just short of being malicious, the corruption comes from the surveillance itself, not in the people who institute it: these powers  are a recipe for dystopia. The abuses will happen, as predicted over two-hundred years ago. It would be a dereliction of my prophetic duty not to offer you the fruit of my experience. I saw a runaway security-state: I walked along a Berlin-eque wall with people who had scarves over their faces because if their photograph were taken they might disappear over-night into a prison where trials are optional – within the established laws, according to ‘secret’ evidence. Believing it would restore my confidence, I went to a demonstration near the Russell Senate office building. Barely twenty of us had arrived when a legion of police arrived to shoo us away. ‘No more than twenty’ could assemble, unless we went into the plaza –out of sight.

“They want to make us look small─” said one of the other protestors, irate, “move us into a large park, where there isn’t as much traffic—“. The officers were taking their orders through a two-way radio, causing us to wonder what powers dictated from the other side. As we were leaving, a police officer aimed a camera at my face…

1. This official may also have some high-quality, snake-oil-based dragon repellant to sell you all, too.

2. For reference, a loose group called “Anonymous” is hacktivist, going on campaigns of digital vigilantism via the internet by cracking the clearance-screens rather than passing through them.

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JD (John Daniel) Gore is a young adult missionary working through the General Board of Global ministries. JD serves Methodist Federation for Social Action as the 'Associate for Movement Building' and worked previously in Bethlehem for The Wi'am Center. JD is a product of the Michigan State Wesley Foundation and of greater West Michigan. He aspires to work for a culture of acceptance and collective responsibility through better dialogue and creative projects.

North Carolina’s Under-the-Table Wish-List

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

Tuesday evening, senators in North Carolina were able to tack on what many have called the “anti-abortion wish list” to a bill originally intended to discuss Anti-Sharia law. This bill was discussed in a 45 minute committee meeting; it was not put on the agenda for the evening, it was not put on a legislative calendar, and the citizens of North Carolina were not given an opportunity to share how they felt about a piece of legislation that would directly affect their access to health care. This piece of legislation was ironically entitled the “Family, Faith, and Freedom Protection Act.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina(http://www.acluofnorthcarolina.org/) described HB695 in the following way:

“Without any public notice or debate, the North Carolina Senate voted to pass an omnibus anti-abortion bill that would severely restrict women’s access to abortion care by prohibiting health plans offered through federal health care exchanges from offering abortion coverage, requiring abortion clinics to go through a licensing process similar to outpatient surgical clinics, allowing all health care providers to opt out of providing abortion care, requiring doctors to stay in the room for an entire abortion procedure (regardless of whether it is surgical, medical, or chemical), and compel doctors to interrogate patients about the reason they are having an abortion by prohibiting doctors from knowingly performing a sex-selection abortion.”

Today I was asked “How does it feel to be a woman from North Carolina this morning?” my answer, well..

As a woman, a resident of North Carolina for almost all my life, and a student of an all-women’s college, I feel disrespected and I feel violated. As I type, restrictions and regulations are being made that affect my body, my choices, my privacy, and my rights as a human being to have access to resources that may one day help me raise a family of my own. But this bill is not only about being a woman. I once heard someone say that systems of oppression are intersectional and this proves that statement true.

As a young adult, I feel betrayed. I feel ashamed that the men and women our children are being brought up to admire, and to look up to because they are who protects our rights, the same people who were granted with the responsibility and trust of their communities when they took place in office, disregarded those duties deceitfully and brought this bill to the floor with no public knowledge. I am embarrassed and I am angry at my home state and the men and women in our government who are acting like bullies.

As an ethnic minority living in North Carolina, I feel frightened for my brothers and sisters who have not grown up as fortunate as I have, who are already living day-to-day without access to affordable health care services, and without anyone to protect them or advocate for their freedom.

As a Christian, I feel confused. I am confused as to why the right to my reproductive freedom and my religious liberties are being altered by government interference on behalf of protecting “my faith” because in fact my faith is just that: it is my own. I am confused as to why a bill entitled the “Family, Faith, Freedom Protection Act” is infringing on my freedom to a faith that is all my own, a faith that supports my right to one day parent, or my right not to do so.

So, how does it feel to be a woman from North Carolina this morning? Not so great. My family, my faith, and my freedom are being attacked. Tomorrow is the 4th of July, Independence Day. It is a day to celebrate the birth of religious freedom in this country and much more. I know what I will be celebrating. But I’m not sure about North Carolina.

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Ali SantiagoJulia "Ali" Santiago is a rising junior at Meredith College in North Carolina and active in the UMC. Ali is working with MFSA this summer as an Ethnic Young Adult intern through the General Board of Church and Society. EYA's serve at agencies in Washington, DC and develop skills for service to the church and world through Friday seminars.

Methodist Federation for Social Action Develops Tips for Responsible Tourism in the Holy Land

Monday, July 1st, 2013

WASHINGTON, DC – July 1, 2013 – The Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) has released a document intended to provide tips for responsible tourism for pilgrims to holy sites in Israel and Palestine. Recognizing that what many people call the Holy Land is a living context where people are struggling amidst conflict for human dignity and civil rights, MFSA developed a two-page guide to stimulate discussion and ethical action for groups planning pilgrimages to the Middle East. The guidelines can be found at www.mfsaweb.org or by clicking here.

Created by MFSA’s Associate for Movement Building, John Daniel (JD) Gore, the guide is meant to recognize that meaningful contact with all people living in the region is a necessity for understanding the context of Jesus’ ministry and the ministry of the Church in this region today. “Sometimes tour companies only give one perspective of the contemporary experience of living in this region,” stated Gore. “These tips give pilgrims an opportunity to think about how their tourism can affect a broader discussion of economic impact and peacebuilding.” Gore serves MFSA through the Mission Intern program of the General Board of Global Ministries. Prior to MFSA, Gore served at Wi’am, a Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center, in Bethlehem. “Key to engaging in responsible tourism is working with the Methodist Liaison Office in Jerusalem,” stated Gore.

In 2012, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church decided not to support divestment of church funds from corporations profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Instead, General Conference supported positive investment in Palestine. While MFSA continues to support divestment, as called for by Palestinian Christians in the Kairos document, responsible tourism will help pilgrims develop a deeper understanding of the contemporary context and assist United Methodists in living out the mandate of General Conference to engage in positive investment.

“It is our hope that congregations and annual (regional) conferences seeking to walk in the footsteps of Christ, or engage in Volunteer in Mission work, might use this document as a reference for planning their trips and bringing the work of General Conference to fruition,” stated Chett Pritchett, MFSA’s Interim Executive Director.

Since 1907, the Methodist Federation for Social Action has worked to mobilize, lead, and sustain a progressive movement, energizing people to be agents of God’s justice, peace, and reconciliation. As an independent, faith-based organization, MFSA leads both Church and society on issues of peace, poverty, people’s rights, progressive issues, and justice within The United Methodist Church.

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National Office:212 East Capitol St., NE,Washington, DC 20003 * tel: 202.546.8806 *email: mfsa@mfsaweb.org