The Family: America’s Taliban

“The Family: America’s Taliban” is a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL  on 10 January 2010 © by Rev. Fred L Hammond

Sinclair Lewis’s novel, It Can’t Happen Here published in 1935 tells the story of an American President who systematically strips the constitution of its democratic powers and becomes a fascist dictator. The belief that it can’t happen here is as much an icon of American mythology as the American Dream.

But there is another icon that is also steeped in the American mythos and is actively at work to ensure that it can indeed happen here even while proclaiming that it cannot. Jeff Sharlet, author of the controversial book: The Family: the Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power tells of a religious cult that is at once all American and also a dangerous religious movement that will, if allowed to prosper, dismantle what we have called American Democracy and replace it with a theocracy more powerful and perhaps even more regressive than the Taliban, the repressive Islamic cult that has ruled in Afghanistan.

The word Taliban in the United States has taken on iconic proportions as representing what can happen when a fundamentalist version of a religion takes control of a nation. In this regard, I am using the word Taliban as metaphor when I discuss the religious cult that has achieved today such power in the United States as an elite fundamentalist group.

Jeff Sharlet was invited to live at Ivanwald, a communal house run by the Family for young men who show promise of leadership. It is a boot camp of sorts where residents are indoctrinated into a faith with Jesus, who is as all American as apple pie. He writes, “Ivanwald is one house among many, clustered like mushrooms, nearly two dozen households devoted, like these men, to the service of a personal Jesus, a Christ who directs their every action.” 

 The Family which has also been known as The Fellowship has its roots in American Politics going back seventy years. Abram Vereide was a minister, a protégé of evangelist Billy Sunday in the 1920’s. His ministry was in the Pacific Northwest. He was a struggling minister. He received what he believed was a message from God to go to minister those who were the “up and out,” those in power who did not know Jesus. The vision was for God to use the powerful to restore the world to first century Christianity and establish the kingdom of God on earth. Above all else, God’s law was to be obeyed and the way to do this was by using those whom God had placed into power. “Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” is not just a bible verse but a prophetic vision of what literally is meant to occur.

Abram under the command of his God, moves to Washington, DC and begins to meet people who knew people in places of power. He begins to pray with them and establishes the Fellowship around 1935 partly in response to FDR’s New Deal. Abram Vereide taught “that the poor, with their demands for government services—which he understood as a failure to trust that God would provide—were “the adversaries of the church.” 

This is the doctrine behind today’s fundamentalist’s adamant abhorrence to Health Care Reform, Welfare, Medicaid and other services to the poor. Trust God to provide, to seek support from the government means that ones faith in God is non-existent. It contradicts The Family’s belief that governments are God’s authority established on earth but sobeit.

His theology blends the theology of Puritan John Winthrop who wrote, “We shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” This was a belief that America would be the seat of the New Jerusalem where the new kingdom of heaven would arise. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny that America had the divine right to claim the continent of North America for her self is part of this new Christian doctrine of America’s faith. It was further expanded in the Monroe Doctrine which declared that the Western Hemisphere was no longer available for European colonization and now under the growing influence of the United States. All we had to do was to claim our rightful place and the New Jerusalem would be established and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Abram’s theology rooted in these doctrinal stances with a literal reading of the Old and New Testaments led him to establish a secretive, inner circle of believers. Abram claimed Jesus had done the same with the levels of teachings that he gave the multitudes versus those he gave to his disciples and those he only gave to Peter and John. The inner circle was much like the small groups that Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin used in wielding power; these would barter back room deals with politicians away from public spheres. It would allow for invisibility.

The theology that Abram Vereide and later his successor Doug Coe would embrace was one of dominionism. Blended with its own American brand of puritan envisioning, Manifest Destiny and Monroe Doctrine, this dominionism relied on the Bible to guide every decision from whom to marry to what tie to wear in the morning. Sharlet writes, “Unlike neo-evangelicals, who concern themselves chiefly with getting good with Jesus, dominionists want to reconstruct early Christian society, which they believe was ruled by God alone. They view themselves as the new chosen and claim a Christian doctrine of covenantalism, meaning covenants not only between God and humanity but at every level of society, replacing the rule of law and its secular contracts. Since these covenants are signed, as it were, in the Blood of the Lamb, they are written in ink invisible to nonbelievers.” 

The members of the family believe they are indeed chosen by God. This explains how South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, a member of the Family, could so brazenly quote the King David story, quoted in our reading from Sharlet’s text today, as the reason why he would not step down as governor after his deceitful trips to cover up an extra-marital-affair. He is God’s chosen and therefore exempt from the ungodly laws of the land.

 Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) is another member of the Family who travels twice a year to Uganda to promote that country’s conversion to Jesus. He once boasted that because of his office he can meet with any leader in the world to preach about Jesus.  He has met with and presumably prayed with Family associate President Museveni. President Museveni since his rise to power in 1986 and his association with the Family has increasingly moved Uganda towards dictatorship and away from democracy. “Democracy”, Jeff Sharlet was told when he lived with the family at the Ivanwald house, was a form of “rebelliousness” against God. 

Uganda made the news recently, when Ugandan Family member proposed legislation that would execute people with HIV/AIDS and/or Gays and imprison those who harbor them. It is no secret that Senator Inhofe is against civil rights for sexual minorities. His rhetoric has been quite emphatic against homosexuals in this country. Only under increasing pressure did Inhofe publicly state he was against the proposed legislation but he has not taken any steps to actively advocate against this genocide proposal given his influence in Uganda.

His original response was much like Pastor Rick Warren’s, founder of the Saddleback Church and while not a member of the Family, Warren is also a frequent visitor to Uganda. Both stated that their role is not to get involved in the political struggles of a nation. Rick Warren has after receiving pressure did a video message to Uganda’s people condemning the proposed legislation as un-Christian. When your goal is to create God centered governments then you are involved in the political struggles of a nation. There is the added responsibility to be held accountable to one’s interference in another culture. “The Family renounces public accountability.” 

Uganda, since 1991, has held a National Prayer Breakfast modeled after the Family’s sponsored National Prayer Breakfast here in Washington. The US National Prayer Breakfast has been an annual event since President Eisenhower was elected to office. As a thank you to the evangelicals who helped get him elected he endorsed the first prayer breakfast created by Abram Vereide, the founder of the Family then called the International Christian Leadership.

The prayer breakfast is not simply a morning prayer with coffee and danish, it is a week long event with workshops on Christianity and government. The powerful from around the globe come in the hopes of meeting with the powerful in Washington. By praying together they form a bond, a doorway, that allows them access to meet unofficially, in the back rooms, with the elite chosen by god.  All leaders of countries are chosen by God according to Romans 13:1 “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”

This belief is held as literal fact by the members of the Family. Imagine what this belief would do to someone who is Governor of a state, a Senator or Congress person, or even President of the country. Imagine what this belief would do if you believe that the President of the country was not submitted to the will of God.

This year, it is expected that the sponsors of this heinous Uganda legislation will be at the US National Prayer Breakfast in February. The speaker this year will be President Obama. What will he say and more importantly what will he leave unsaid?

Now I try not to be an alarmist about things. I try to see the more positive side of things and I admit sometimes that causes me to stretch quite far in order to do this. But I am alarmed by the Family. I am alarmed when I read how deeply they have infiltrated the offices of government, not only here in the States but abroad. I am alarmed when I read that this is the goal of the Family.

Jeff Sharlet writes about a program of the Family known as “Youth Corps, whose programs are often centered around Ivanwald-style houses, prepares the best of its recruits for positions of power in business and government abroad. Its programs are in operation in Russia, Ukraine, Romania, India, Pakistan, Uganda, Nepal, Bhutan, Ecuador, Honduras, Peru, and other countries. The goal: ‘Two hundred national and international world leaders bound together relationally by a mutual love for God and the family.’” 

These recruits are then sent to these countries and while they may be working on legitimate tasks to benefit the country they are also seeking key volunteers to develop cell groups, we might call them covenant groups. These core groups become the cells that indoctrinate the individuals to lay down their lives to Jesus and to each other. They are taught to submit their wills to Jesus. Each member of the cell is committed to the other, and each member could veto the direction another life was going in if it was determined to be against the will of Jesus.

But they are not just being sent to other countries. They are being sent here as well. Gov. Mark Sanford, Senator James Inhofe, Representative Joseph Pitts, Representative Bart Stupak, Representative Mike Doyle, Senator Sam Brownback are all members of the Family. There are others. You might recognize the names of Stupak and Pitts. They are the bipartisan sponsors of the amendment to the Health Care reform act that limits insurance payments of abortions. 

 The Family is seeking to legislate their understanding of Biblical mandates into how our nation operates. It isn’t just happening now, it has been happening since the beginning of the Family when it was known as International Christian Leadership or the Fellowship.

Sharlet writes: “ ‘Under God’ was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, an initiative sponsored in the Senate by Homer Ferguson, a Republican I C L board member, and financed by ICLer Clement Stone, and ‘In God We Trust’ was added to the nation’s currency by a bill sponsored by a Dixiecrat congressman named Charles E. Bennett, also a member of the Fellowship’s inner circle.”

Our involvement in the atrocities that have taken place in Costa Rica, in Haiti, in Guatemala, in El Salvado, in Somalia, in Indonesia, in Rwanda, in Uganda are all with Family connections. Key people were sent there by the Family to set up prayer cells with the leaders in the hopes of swaying these countries towards being god-led governments. It did not matter that these countries were not democratic or honored human rights of their citizens, what mattered is that they obeyed the teachings of the Family brought to them by Family members who were in positions of power in the US. In exchange these governments received US financial aid and in some instances support for the genocides that took place there. “Jesus must rule every nation through the vessel of American power,” Sharlet writes regarding the Family’s goals.

It is the conviction of these politicians, Sharlet writes, “that more of God’s mandates and the teachings of the Nazarene must be written into current legislation.” 

Sharlet writes “One day, [Doug] Coe [leader of the Family] believes—not yet—America (and Old Europe, too, the Germans and French and Italians who drifted from Christ once their prosperity was assured) will wake up and find itself surrounded by a hundred tiny God-led governments: Fiji, a “model for the nations” under a theocratic regime after 2001, … and Uganda, made over as an experiment in faith-based initiatives by the Family’s favorite African brother, the dictator Yoweri Museveni; and Mongolia, where Coe traveled in the late 1980s to plant the seeds for that country’s post-communist laissez-faire regime. Nobody notices; nobody cares what happens in small places. This is what George H. W. Bush praised in 1992 as Coe’s ‘quiet diplomacy’”. 

 And this is how it can happen here, quietly, far from the lime light; far from the eyes of a press slowly growing cataracts blinding them to really see what is happening. Small groups of politicians meet for prayer and Bible study. They share the stresses of their positions, their infidelities, their pains, as well as their hopes and dreams. Here they are forgiven and embraced as the new chosen people of God. They work to pass bills into laws that reflect their interpretation of God’s laws. They believe they have been given the charge to create the New Jerusalem, a city upon a hill, a beacon to the world, the kingdom of heaven where Jesus can rule the world. Yet, in the process create a repressive regime that slips ever more closely to a theocratic fascism.

Sharlet compares Martin Luther King Jr. with Doug Coe. He writes: “King was a Christian like Coe. Like Coe, he believed in the “beloved community,” the Kingdom of God realized here on Earth, and like Coe, he was willing to work with those who didn’t share his beliefs. But that is where the similarities end. Coe preaches a personal, private submission; King fought and died in public for collective liberation. Coe believes Jesus has a special message for the powerful; King believed God has a special message for everyone. Most important, in 1968, as Coe was constricting the already narrow vision of the Fellowship, King was doing as he had done his whole life: broadening his dream. King died just as he was raising his voice to speak out not only for racial justice but also for economic justice. He would pursue it not through private prayer cells but through public solidarity.” 

If the true spirit and essence of the American experiment is to be fulfilled, it is here in the public arena where it will shine forth. The dream described in the Declaration of Independence was that all people are endowed with inalienable rights including the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. May we shout loud and long in the public sphere that history’s long arc will always bend towards justice and liberty for all people, not just those in power, but for those oppressed.

I am reminded of Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it–always.” May these words offer us hope. Blessed Be.

Quotes unless biblical or otherwise stated are from Jeff Sharlet’s book The Family.

Resources:  Jeff Sharlet,  The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power  Harper Collins e-books

NPR story “A Different perspective on ‘the Family’ and Uganda” aired December 22, 2009

Las Vegas Sun as found at http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2009/jul/19/behind-closed-doors-c-street/

Pensito Review as found at http://www.pensitoreview.com/2009/11/25/the-family-c-street-group-tied-to-uganda-death-penalty-for-gays/

 http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Mahatma_Gandhi/)

A Crisis of Faith

A congregant came to me today stating they were experiencing a crisis of faith.  A good conversation followed.  Without going into to the details one of the comments in the conversation referred to the various doctrines that are out there.  Who is right?  Who is wrong?  Each claim to have the correct doctrine.  What is one to believe?  What if they are right and we are wrong? 

Unitarian Universalism is a creedless faith.  We do not claim that one doctrine is the correct one above all else.  Instead we covenant to support one another in the living of the question, to support each other in their quest for meaning and truth.   The question will always be asked.  It might be a different question that arises but a question will always be asked.  A crisis in faith will always occur at some point in our lives.

Jesus was once asked the question what was the greatest commandment.  He answered according to the Christian scriptures, 

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22: 37-39 NIV)

The rest as another wise rabbi once stated is commentary.  Now Unitarian Universalists may have a hard time with the phrase “the Lord your God.”  But if we consider what is being stated with this phrase is not just a divine entity who rules over all of creation with a firm and heavy hand but rather that which is ultimate, that which is the greatest good, that which is worthy of our devotion, that which is honorable, that which is just; then the phrase “the Lord your God” takes on a different connotation.   To live our lives with that level of passion in what we do is a transformative act.  It will shape everything we do with our lives in the here and now.  

The rest indeed becomes commentary.  It no longer matters if I believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, died on the cross for my sins, or even if he rose again from the dead.  Nor does it matter if I believe that God is One or if God is three in one or if there are many Gods.  Nor does it matter if I believe in reincarnation or if this is the only life I live.  The doctrines becomes commentary. 

The essence of all religions using slightly different words perhaps boil down to these two commandments.  For the Buddhist, for example,  it is to be mindful in all things; to be awake to this present moment.  When we are awake in the Buddhist sense then we are engaging our whole heart, mind, and soul. 

How one goes about living their life in this manner is open for debate.  For some it may be by embracing Christianity.  For another it may be in embracing Buddhism or Islam, or Hinduism, or Wicca.  But to do so with passion, with ones whole being is to love the Lord your God with ones whole self.  To express this love to others is the second part of this mystery. 

I told this person a bit of my own travel through crises of faith.  When I was still a conservative Christian and still in the closet, I worked with people living with AIDS.  There was one man who I would visit and bring dinners to him almost every night.  He had been excommunicated from his church and from his family, except two of his 13 siblings, because he had HIV/AIDS .  The church believed that this meant he wasn’t sincere in his repentance because if he had been, then he would not experience this dreadful disease. 

Our doctrines sometimes narrows our lives rather than expand them.  Our doctrines should expand our understandings of love and not narrow them. 

Anyway, I would visit this man who had become bed bound.  This was in the days when hospices would not accept HIV/AIDS patients and he was not so sick that he needed hospitalization.  So he only had these two siblings who would visit and several volunteers.   This one night, I brought dinner over.  He was asleep.  So I decided to stay and sit with him and pray.   As I was praying, I looked over at him and in the dim light of the room, I saw in that bed not Jesse (name changed)  but rather Jesus lying there.  Or what I would have thought Jesus would look like lying there.  

I was entering a crisis of faith as I was beginning to wrestle with my identity as a gay man.  Here before me was another gay man who appeared to me as  Jesus to me at that particular moment.  How do I love someone who is gay and the antithesis of the doctrines I embraced?  How do I love myself enough to be able to love another?  How do I reconcile the doctrine with my experiences?   The answer in that moment seemed so simple. 

To see everyone as worthy of  devotion, worthy of love, worthy of service, worthy of life.  It was shortly there after and a few more eye-opening experiences that I came out of the closet.  And entered another crisis of faith with my Christian community regarding what I was finding true and what they taught as true.  

There will probably always be a crisis of faith that will release new questions and new wonderings about the nature of this world.  But I believe if I hold to the standard of  loving the utmost highest good with my whole heart, mind, and soul then the rest will be commentary.

Published in: on November 13, 2009 at 3:05 pm  Comments (1)  
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Why We Can’t Wait

On the Monday that I flew out to Salt Lake City, Utah for the 48th General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalists,  I found my plane delayed in Birmingham several times, leaving over 5 hours after the scheduled time.  Needless to say I was a bit aggravated and impatient.  I finally made it to Dallas-Forth Worth for my connection flight that was now two hours after I arrived there.  As I got on board the plane and found my seat, my row companion looked up at me and asked, “Are you one of my colleagues?” 

Serendipitously, I was sitting next to Rev. Dr. Daniel Kanter of the First Unitarian Church of Dallas.  It turned out that he had missed his earlier flight.  Okay, so maybe there is a god, I thought to myself wondering what this meeting would bring.  We had a wonderful conversation that only two UUministers could have and we turned to serious matters.   Daniel asked me why were gay activists so impatient with Obama.  Didn’t we understand that Obama has to play politics in order for the right moment to repeal DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act)  and DADT (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) ? I gave some answers that I thought were pertinent.  He then said, “Why don’t you blog about this conversation?”

Here is my further reflection on why we can’t wait for civil rights.   First a recap of the answer I gave on the plane.  Yes, I think gay activists are savvy enough to know political maneuvering when we see it.   But the DOMA brief that was written by Obama staff  did more than just defend the current law, it attacked our dignity and  integrity.  The brief  compared same sex marriage to court rulings banning pedophilia coupling and incestual coupling.   Consensual same sex coupling is clearly not in the same category as the manipulative pedophilia relationship nor does it result in the potential  biological damages in offspring as incestual relationships.  President Bush’s brief on DOMA did not even broach these relationships in its argument to uphold DOMA. 

DADT does not need to have congress to repeal it.  When President Harry S Truman integrated the armed services he did so with an executive order.  President Obama could do the same.  He chooses not to.   The arguments against allowing sexual minorities into the military no longer carries any weight with Canada, Britain, France, and Israel all having openly gay military serving in their forces.    These militaries are considered to be among the greatest armed forces in the world.   They have not been compromised with gay personnel and nor will our armed services if sexual minorities are allowed to serve openly with honor and dignity. 

These were the reasons I gave but it does not answer the question as to why we cannot wait.  The answer came to me as I was listening to the talk given by Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie, minister of the Arlington Street Church in Boston, during our honoring of those ministers who were celebrating 25 years of ministry.   She included remembrances of  her services to people living with HIV/AIDS. 

This year is the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, the riots that occurred when police raided a gay bar in the Greenwich Village region of New York City.   Police were known to raid the gay bars from time to time, haul people into jail.  Occasionally a well known figure would be arrested and have his career destroyed.  On the night of the riots, however, the patrons, many of them drag queens, said enough is enough and fought back.  They were joined by others.   The riots continued for several days.    The beginnings of a re-energized gay civil rights campaign began.  This was 1969. 

There was progress towards rights in the ten years that followed and then in 1979 gay men began to get ill with mysterious diseases.  It did not capture the attention of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)  until mid 1981.   There was no funding to study this new outbreak.  There was little need to be concerned because after all these were gay men.  It was called gay cancer and in some hospitals;  medical staff called it WOGS (Wrath of God Syndrome). 

There was a sense in America that some how these people deserved this disease.  It was a death sentence.  Once diagnosed with PCP or KS or Toxo, a person had weeks, rarely months to live.  The immune system so compromised to allow these rare illnesses to ravage the body there was little hope of living.   Hundreds became thousands of young gay men dying. 

We were dispensable.  We had no rights.  We could be evicted from our homes on suspect of being gay.  We could be fired on appearances alone.    Nursing staff, doctors could refuse to serve a person with HIV/AIDS.  We were denied visiting rights of our partners as they lay dying in the hospital.  When our partners died, family members who wrote them off years before would swoop in and simply take the body of our loved ones. They would evict us from our homes if the house was in our partner’s name.  And they would legally contest the wills as blood relatives and win.  

We had to fight for research monies to find life extending medications.     So many of us lost health insurance because of an AIDS diagnosis.  We had to fight for monies to provide housing for those living with HIV/AIDS. We were denied Social Security Disability because AIDS was not seen as a qualifying disability–thereby a person with AIDS lost all means for an income and medical assistance.   We organized and succeeded to have drugs developed that extended life, not only by months but by years, restoring many to be able to lead productive lives again.  It was a hard fight.   But it is a fight we still have to contend with. 

Governor Jodi Rell of Connecticut decided to cut to zero what she considered to be non-essential services for the budget that begins today.  All AIDS funding was cut which will resort in people with HIV/AIDS to once again face medical crisis as they find services no longer available to them.  For contrast park and recreational services were deemed essential services.

Alabama rejected Federal Ryan White funds which amounted to a total of $10 million in medical treatment for people with HIV/AIDS and rejected an additional $700K in funding for support services.    These two examples are being repeated across the nation. 

Why can’t we wait?  We are tired of being expendable under the law.  We are tired of being deemed second class citizens that do not have partnership medical benefits, or employment rights, or housing rights, or marriage rights, or survivorship benefits.  Our lives can be trampled on by survivors who refused to acknowledge our existence while alive but want every piece of us when we are dead.  This demeans our integrity and sense of worth. 

To continue to live with the lies that the far right is spreading regarding the hate crimes bill and the employment non-discrimination Act (ENDA) is degrading and immoral. 

We have paid for our rights as full citizens with our lives.   We have paid dearly.   For us to have supported a President who campaigned hard and long on a promise of equality winning our votes, to now tell us to have patience after the thousands of lives that have been lost to HIV/AIDS is unconscionable. Telling us to have patience after the thousands of deaths as a result of  homophobic violence in our schools, in our communities, in our families that continue to this very day is cruel. Now is not the time for patience.  Now is the time for fulfilling promises made that helped place this president and his party into office.

Published in: on July 1, 2009 at 7:17 pm  Comments (2)  
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Pope’s view on sexuality is 19th century at best

Pope Benedict XVI is in a bit of a bind regarding HIV/AIDS.  He is trying to make the current pandemic fit a world view that no longer exists in the 21st century.  It makes the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church seem totally out of touch with what the people are experiencing.

” ‘You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,” the pope told reporters aboard the Alitalia plane heading to Yaounde. “On the contrary, it increases the problem.’  The pope said a responsible and moral attitude toward sex would help fight the disease, as he answered questions submitted in advance by reporters traveling on the plane. His response was presumably also prepared in advance. The Catholic Church rejects the use of condoms as part of its overall teaching against artificial contraception. Senior Vatican officials have advocated fidelity in marriage and abstinence from premarital sex as key weapons in the fight against AIDS.”

The difficulty of orthopraxis (right actions)  is that it is created during a specific time and place, it addresses specific needs of that time and it does not always transcend societal trends and circumstances.  The Catholic church’s view on sexuality is that it has one purpose and one purpose only and that is procreation of the species.  There is no other purpose of the behaviors that we call sexual. 

This is the reason why the Catholic Church is against latex barriers/ condom usage because they would inhibit the primary reason to have sexual intercourse.   According to a text written by Jonathan Ned Katz, entitled The Invention of Heterosexuality the term Heterosexual was used in 1892 “associating them with nonprocreative perversion.”  This seems to be the mindset view of the Roman Catholic Church.  This explains why the church is against condom use, defining marriage beyond that of one man and one woman, masturbation and homosexuality. 

There was a time when these praxi could possibly be justified.  The Jewish people in the days of the Hebrew scriptures were a minority population.  Having children was important, not only to carry on their culture but also to increase their chances of survival.  The ordinance  against spilling one’s seed on the ground instead of placing it in the belly of a whore, is therefore an important ordinance.  More important than the adultery of sleeping with a known whore.  Homosexual behaviors also reduced the possibility of increasing one’s tribe. Masturbation did the same.  And polygamy defined marriage for the same reason, it increased the possibility of passing on strong genes to as many children as possible.

The prohibitions of homosexuality in the Hebrew Scriptures had another reason that had little to do with the act of homosexuality itself as it did with abandoning the God of Abraham and participating in the religious cults of the native people whose land the Jews were to possess.   Participating in these religious cults was more of a threat to the identity of the Jewish people. 

The Pope advocates for a moral and responsible attitude towards sex as a means to reduce the spread of HIV.   I agree with the statement however, I do not agree with the mindset that produced such a statement.  In today’s world where the purpose of sexual activity is primarily for pleasure and procreation only as desired calls for a very moral and responsible attitude.  It calls for a healthy respect for the human body.  It calls for a mutuality of love between partners where the partners respect and honor their partners body and boundaries.  And it calls for pre-planning in pregnancy when the world is fast approaching 8 billion people in a world that has difficulty finding the resources to sustain 7 billion. 

Having children in today’s world can potentially be the most irresponsible thing a couple can do when the resources to support that child’s life simply isn’t available for the couple.  I do not believe that if god created sex to be as pleasurable as it is, that she would forbid two people from expressing symbolically the love of god in their sexuality because they chose to use a condom.  That symbol of the love of god made manifest in the sacred union is at the heart of every wedding vow in the Christian tradition. 

The Pope is in a bind because the nature of this pandemic requires absolutely requires from a moral and ethical point of view to reconsider the orthopraxi of the 19th century and earlier and find every possible means to reduce the spread of HIV.  Yes, abstinence before marriage is one possible means.  But it does not remove the threat from the partners of the child who contracted HIV from his or her mother and now is an adult thanks to life saving drugs.  For this person, abstinence before marriage only postpones the potential of spreading the virus. 

Latex barriers are going to be essential after marriage to reduce the possibility of infecting his or her partner.  Wouldn’t it be better for the child to learn a healthy respect for his or her sexual body while growing up so they can be responsible in their expression of sexuality as young adults.  The Pope’s condemnation of condoms also condemns this person for wanting to live a healthy and productive life with a sexual partner.    This is simply an immoral and irresponsible view point given the nature of this pandemic.

World AIDS Day Observance in the South

 The 20th observation of World AIDS Day was on December 1st.    I attended the local observance of this event organized by West Alabama AIDS Outreach (WAAO).   It is now five days later and I am still reflecting on what I heard. 

AIDS is no foreign entity to me.  Those of you who know me, know that I co-founded an AIDS ministry in my hometown of Danbury, CT and then ran that organization in various positions for 15 years.   I witnessed a change of attitude in Danbury over that time period within the interfaith religious community.   Congregations that were homophobic lessened their fear in its relationship with AIDS and began to talk about HIV/AIDS prevention from the pulpit.   They were less afraid to admit that there were members in their congregations with the disease.   Clergy of all religious cloth began to respond to those with HIV/AIDS with compassion. This is not to say that conservative faith groups suddenly embraced everyone  impacted by this disease but there was a decrease in the stigma of having HIV/AIDS.    I like to think this change of heart was in some small part due to the presence of the non-profit organization I ran.  I know that it was because of a much broader community effort to educate ourselves on this disease. 

West Alabama is still steeped in ignorance when it comes to how HIV/AIDS is or isn’t transmitted.   WAAO is still trying, 30 years into this pandemic,  to separate the stigma of sexuality, primarily homosexuality from the disease.   It’s not who you are but rather what you do that puts you at risk for this disease.

So as I sat and listened to the speakers at the podium talk about HIV/AIDS in Alabama, I felt I was transported back in time to when I first was personally confronted with the specter of AIDS.   It suddenly made sense to me why Alabama and other southern states are seeing a resurgence in HIV transmission.     These are states that are afraid. 

Fear is a great paralyzer.  It causes us to behave in irrational ways.  It causes us to believe falsehoods because the falsehoods reinforce the fear.   In West Alabama, fear keeps people from being empowered to choose healthful decisions about their bodies.   The only antidote I know to fear is education. 

It will require the schools in Alabama to discard the failed Abstinence based approach to sexuality and to choose comprehensive sexuality education.  This is the only approach I have seen to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, reduce unwanted teen pregnancy, reduce the spread of other sexual transmitted infections and diseases.  It is also the only approach I know that reduces the fear that grips this region.

Published in: on December 5, 2008 at 4:07 pm  Comments Off on World AIDS Day Observance in the South  
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HIV Felony law is based on fear and sexual taboos

Well, I learn something new every day here in Mississippi.  On Friday, May 16, 2008, the Clarion-Ledger broke a story of a wife who did not disclose her HIV status to her husband is now facing felony charges for knowingly exposing her husband and four year old son to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.   The statute regulating HIV exposure went into effect in 2004.  This year is significant and I will return to it momentarily.  The law states, “It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly expose another person to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B or hepatitis C.  Prior knowledge and willing consent to the exposure is a defense to a charge brought under this paragraph. A violation of this subsection shall be a felony.” Mississippi code 97-27-14 (1)  She faces up to ten years in prison. 

If this law had been passed prior to 1987, it would have been unfortunate but understandable.  At that time HIV, hepatitis B and C were diseases that were relatively untreatable.  A person who discovered he or she was HIV+ was looking at a life expectancy of under 10 years.  If the person did not know their status until an AIDS diagnosis was made, was looking at a life expectancy of under 2 years.  There were no viable treatments.  In 2004 however, not only are there viable treatments, the life expectancy in this country has exceeded the 20 year plus mark making HIV infection at best a chronically managable disease.  It is quite possible that a person diagnosed today with HIV for them to live to the average life expectancy in the US.   This however, does not excuse a person’s responsibility in not telling their prospective partner of their status.  It only places the law into a different context for when it was passed.  We allegedly were better informed about this disease in 2004 than in 1987. 

But let’s look a bit closer into that responsibility to discuss ones sexual health with a partner.  We have major taboos about sex.  So to criminalize the not revealing of ones status does not make sense when we as a society cannot even talk openly about healthy sexual relationships with our teenagers.  The school systems in this state insist on abstinence only education even though the state would allow comprehensive sexual education if the school boards supported it.  Even though research repeatedly finds that abstinence based only education does not prevent or slow down the onset of teenage sexual behavior.   Fear based education never works.  It is opposite to where teens are developmentally which is the age of risk taking.  Developmentally it is better to arm teens with the information and skills in how to make informed decisions.  All other countries who are on par with the US in standards of living have comprehensive sexual education AND the lowest rates of teen pregnancies, teen STI’s, and teen abortions.  Why?  Because sex is not a taboo subject but a recognized healthy part of being human. 

If we taught that it was okay to talk about sexual relationships with one another, and taught how to bring up the subject of sexual behaviors and health in a relationship; then the wife might have been taught the skills in how to bring up this sensitive subject with her husband; who by the way has tested negative for the virus and so has their 4 year old son.  He also would have been taught the skills in how to handle a difficult subject matter.    Sigh… instead we criminalize the not telling instead of teaching the skills in how to discuss sensitive relationship topics.   How barbaric are we? 

Fortunately for Unitarian Universalists and members of the United Church of Christ, we have jointly developed a curriculum called Our Whole Lives (OWL) which is a comprehensive sexual education program for our young people.  It teaches the skills needed to have healthy sexual relations including how to discuss the sensitive topics in relationships.    The facilitators of this curriculum are trained in how to teach this course.  The parents are required to attend an orientation class prior to their children’s participation to learn exactly what is being discussed and encouraged to further the discussion with their children at home. 

One more thing…  Does this law set the precedent for passing a law making it a felony for knowingly exposing second hand smoke to minors and others?  We know that smoke and second hand smoke causes cancer and heart disease both potentially terminal diseases?  With the children, smoking would become a form of child abuse, permitting the state to remove the child from an unsafe environment.   I didn’t think so.

How desperate the cut off line of poverty

My friend Rev. Ricky talks on his blog about a woman in his congregation who was denied services from an agency she needed because she did not meet the eligibility requirements.  She felt anger towards the non-profit and wanted to get beyond it.

In reading this, I was reminded of a surviving spouse of a person we served at Interfaith AIDS Ministry.  She wanted to know how she could continue receiving supports from us.  She had given us the complement that we did what we said we would do and that our services actually made it easier for families struggling.  Our policy was that we continued providing supports to the family one year after the person with HIV/AIDS died as a means to help with the grieving process and to aid in transitioning to other support agencies if needed.  

She was at the cut-off line in eligibility for services from other agencies.  It was clear that she and her family would benefit greatly but that she simply did not qualify because of a number of factors.  She told me that she would infect herself with HIV if it meant that she would be able to live a more quality-filled life with services.  Needless to say I counseled her away from such an action, yet here was the level of desperation we have come to in this country.  Stating that her quality of life would be improved with HIV-a disease that includes treatments that are oft times just as painful and disabling as the disease itself-is a harsh commentary on American life.

At that time, I heard similar stories from my executive director colleagues in the HIV/AIDS arena.  The work they began doing was more and more poverty relief. How do you provide sufficient supports to people living with HIV/AIDS and their families when they are on the cut off line of poverty?  When they are unable to make ends meet on minimum wage? 

It isn’t just HIV/AIDS that places them on this cut-off line… the line is filled with so many more factors…  As the recession that our government denies being in deepens, families that have been floating just above this cut-off line will begin to sink.   It is already happening.   The gap is growing between the rich and the poor.   The middle is waisting away to use an HIV/AIDS metaphor. 

What is the response of the church?  What will it take for us to respond in a manner that doesn’t just provide a safety net for those falling but prevents the fall in the first place.  There is a story that I have heard many versions of and it has been attributed to many people that I do not know its original source. 

The story goes like this…  I was walking along a river when I saw a baby drowning.  I ran in and pulled the baby out.  Just as I pulled this baby out, I saw another baby drowning in the river and another.  I called on the passer-bys and soon there were hundreds of us saving babies drowning the river.  We formed an organization to save drowning babies.  We had services galore for these drowning babies.  Then it dawned on me, and I left the river.  People asked me where was I going when there was so much work to do?  I said, I am going up stream to find out who is throwing babies into the river and stop them. 

Justice is not just the pulling out of the river the drowning babies.  Justice is locating the cause that placed the babies in the river to drown in the first place and stopping that causal condition.   We in America have many causes to the drowning babies problem. 

We can get caught up in the symptom and think that this is the work we must do- to treat the symptom.  Yes, by all means help those suffering and seek to relieve their suffering.  But to truly create justice in America we need to focus on the cause and work there as well. 

I have seen more poverty since moving to Mississippi.  I see more people who are on this cut off line.  They are struggling to make ends meet.  I have listened to their stories, heard their despair, and felt their hopelessness that things will get better.   We need to do better.   We are the richest country in the world and we can do better.  We can create justice that is equitable and compassionate.   Let us begin.  Blessings,

 

 

  

Published in: on April 26, 2008 at 2:14 pm  Comments Off on How desperate the cut off line of poverty  
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AIDS in Guam

I am bit taken aback by the communication power of the Internet.  My intention of this forum is to discuss Unitarian Universalism in Mississippi where I currently serve two congregations.   In my post on the new MSD District UP! Program, I compared this innovative program for small congregations to the development strategy used to develop the Interfaith AIDS Ministry that I led for 15 years in CT.   Focus on one thing and do it well.  Then build on that success. 

I wrote to Mr. Patrick who posted the comment regarding the AIDS situation that the GUAHAN Project is facing in the Pacific Islands.  His work is as an AIDS instructor in Hawai’i.   He wrote back: We recently visited Guam to provide some training, and saw how hard it was for the AIDS Service Organization and the local Salvation Army. Migrants from Micronesia have been arriving in Guam seeking care and a better life. The endemic shortage of healthcare providers there has meant many go without adequate or any care despite desperate need. Our friend at the Salvation Army, Simion Kihleng, reported that many of the Micronesians he works with literally have nothing but the clothes on their backs. Their children go to school with nothing, and their hopes for a better life remain unfulfilled.  So, I have been using a little of my free time after work to encourage people to consider helping some people in Guam, Micronesian and beyond. I really appreciate your assistance and support.”
I also received this information from the Executive Director of the GUAHAN Project :

“Please visit our website for the latest in GP’s ramping-up of outreach services in the poorest and least fortuante communties on Guam.  In remote locations away from the tourist areas and shopping centers on Guam, many people from the nieighboring islands live wihout water, power and sewage infrastruture.  There are no roads, just rocky paths that are so rough and undeveloped that school buses, garbage trucks and most emergency vehicles do not pass over them to get to these villages.  There is no trash collection so people discard their waste by the side of the roack gravel trails.
 
My brother visited Guam from Los Angeles for a few days last week and I took him to one of the communities caller “Zero-Down,” named so because customers could buy homestead properties for no cash down and low monthly terms.  Problem is, no utilities or proper water drainage was designed in these parcels of land.  My brother said he was “disheartened” and was taken aback at what he said was “no less than total squalor.”  I think that most of us living in these U.S. Pacific Island Jurisdictions become so engrossed in promoting our islands of the the sun-sand-surf vacation resort destinations that we forget that some of our own people live in hopeless situations.   
     
“High rates of domestic violence, rape, drug abuse and child abuse occure in these places.  Nearly all victims have no way to report these offenses or are unable to do so because of fear of reprisal.  STD rates are astronomical and there have been outbreaks of dengue fever and other communicable diseases impacting people with little to no resources.  As you might expect, truancy is very high and there now appears to be a growing number of undocumented individuals here.  I posted some photos of “Zero Down” in the GP website Gallery.

 
“Your messages help us to focus more on the plight of our own brothers and sisters in our region.  The GUAHAN Project intensified the outreach servces to these areas to provide greater HIV/STD prevention and education services, access to OraSure CTR, urine-based testing for STDs and critical referral services.  We will combine beneficial activities such as a clothing donation component to the current outeach program.  The GUAHAN Project is committed to supporting our neighboring islands’ social service needs as our time and resources allow. –Alexis Q. Silverio, GUAHAN Project Executive Director-“

This adds to his comments below in the UP! program posting.  We can no longer live on this planet and think that what  we do here in Mississippi  has no impact anywhere else on the planet.  Our life here is connected to one another.  The love we share here can make a difference elsewhere.  If you feel so moved to help the people in Guam and the Pacific Islands, check out the website of the GUAHAN Project.  Blessings abound, Rev. Fred L Hammond

Published in: on April 14, 2008 at 5:06 am  Comments (2)  
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