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Henri Nouwen “the Beloved” – part 5

These sermons was formative for me and for all of us in Word Made Flesh. I will post it in 8 parts:

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Henri Nouwen “the Beloved” – part 4

These sermons was formative for me and for all of us in Word Made Flesh. I will post it in 8 parts:

Remnants of Communist Art

IMG_2537Today it is a discotheque called VIP. The building holds a restaurant, a film developer, and a copier, among other stores, but it used to be one of the cinemas in Galati. The art on the front of the building reflects the communist era in which the cinema was constructed.

The communist art is controlled by its geometric shapes. The machinery is manipulated by a human being, which says something of a humanizing vision. But the technology, in its projection of the face of its technician, disfigures the human being. In the projection, humanity is controlled and reduced to geometry.

We are reminded of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image that was reflected in the pool, not realizing that it was only a reflection. Here the woman has constructed her own reflection. She is the center of the piece and is the largest feature. And she gazes at herself as the camera projects her light in every direction.

The question is whether this woman represents the self-enthronement of humanity as in the communist vision or are the echoes of Narcissus and of a flattened out human image a subversive critique of communism?

IMG_2538

Sari Bari

I’m so thankful that I get to know these people:

Drive

Adriana Ciobanu, John Koon and I just finished reading and discussing the book presented here:

A Lament for the Children of Galati: the closing of “Nova 2002”

As we traversed the celebrations of Christmas and entered into a new year, the people of Galati were given reason to lament.

New Year’s parties are usually times of delight and of hope for the new, the possibility of change, and the expectation of something better. Sadly, Galati enters the New Year with a loss and with a change for the worse. On January 1st, the Association “Nova 2002” is closing its doors.

“Nova 2002” is a non-profit organization that was founded in 2002 to help vulnerable young mothers and their infants. They established an Emergency Center, which cared for infants that were abandoned or at-risk of parental abandonment. (http://www.stiriong.ro/detaliu-csc/vrs/IDcsc/4092) “Nova 2002” specifically targeted underage mothers.

Although the number of underage mothers (ages 12-18) continues to grow, Galati is now in a worse position as we enter 2013 than we were in 2012.

Of course, “Nova 2002” could not resolve all the cases of vulnerable infants and young mothers. There are over a hundred each year. But the organization did provide care, counseling, education and support to many of them. They created a solid methodology and an efficient administration, and they offered rich experience and expertise. And they did this at great personal cost. The staff of “Nova 2002” did not have high salaries. They worked out of a personal desire to help little babies have a better start to life.

The major reason why “Nova 2002” shut down is the lack of support from the local government authorities. As with almost all non-profit organizations, “Nova 2002” struggled to raise funds. They successfully covered their budget through donations from outside the country and from within Galati. But the majority of their budget was covered by public funds allocated through the Galati council. 

In 2012 the Galati council allocated 1.7 million lei (about USD 530,000). Of that sum 1,027,000 lei (about USD 320,000) was allocated to six foundations affiliated with the Romanian Orthodox Church, while the rest was designated to another 10 NGOs. “Nova 2002” received 79,000 lei (about USD 25,000). (For the specifics see: http://www.viata-libera.ro/politica-administratie/26604-pentru-nefericitii-galatiului-asistenta-sociala-de-17-milioane-de-lei).

In October, the newly elected Mayor breached the contract made with “Nova 2002” and most of the other non-religiously affiliated NGOs by blocking the promised funds. While the Mayor, Marius Stan, refused to respond to the official requests for an explanation, he did state to the press that local NGOs claim to help the needy but are really just siphoning money for themselves. (For the full statement, see: http://www.viata-libera.ro/politica-administratie/34660-galati-viata-libera-politic-bani-sifonati-asistenta-sociala-fundatii).

Although the Mayor did release the money shortly before Christmas, he failed to respond to requests by the local NGOs for a response to their requests for local funds through law 34 for the year of 2013 and for the Mayor’s objectives for social assistance during his mandate.

Although “Nova 2002” desired to continue to help infants and vulnerable mothers, the instability of the local government forced them to close down. This is a loss to all of Galati. We lose beneficial infrastructure. We lose an organization that we developed by the contributions of the local citizenry. And, what is worse, some of our most needy compatriots are now more vulnerable than before.

As all of this happened around the joys of Christmas, I was reminded of the laments of the first Christmas. The government pursued a policy of infanticide. And the tears of the people were described as the wailing and loud lamentation of Israel’s mother: Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be consoled, because they are no more.

While our local government is not actively pursuing the annihilation of the children, its practices are actively hurting them. And so, we too lament.

Cornel West – ever prophetic

Resisting Fatalism

I sometimes find myself caught in the clutches of fatalism. I grew up in a family with an alcoholic father. Although he went through medical and psychological treatments, worked the Alcoholics Anonymous program, and managed to stop drinking for months and even years at a time, he is beaten by his illness. He is resigned to his addiction. And his resignation finds reflection in mine.

For the past 16 years, I’ve served among youth and adults with addictions – addictions to the streets, to gangs and to substances. While we’ve seen many of them come off the streets and some of them into healthy situations, a number of them are in jail, in hovels or on the streets. I feel like Lazarus’ sister, Mary, who went to Jesus and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” and Martha, who said, “‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days” (John 11:32, 39). Despite love, prayer, support and opportunities for change, we are watching our friends die in their addictions. I find myself being moved unwittingly by an undercurrent that says that people cannot change.

I also look at my own life and the changes that I hope for, pray for and work for but which, after years, I still don’t realize. The lack of change, of answers to prayer, of expected results all cultivates fatalism: no hope for the possibility of change. This reminds me of Albert Camus, a philosopher who deals with fatalism in many of his novels. In his book The Plague, Camus depicts the torturous disease that dominates people and over which they have no control. Camus’ character suggests that we resign ourselves to eminent death because we “… will [only] have suffered longer.”

The flicker of fatalism is fanned by society. Most of the public replies to the government with a defeatist sigh. They look at our environment and say, “That’s just Romania”. They look at the disenfranchised population among whom I serve and say, “Why waste your time and resources? They will never change. And if they do, they won’t amount to much. They were born into poverty, into a bad family, into dysfunction, and that’s where they’ll remain. That’s just the way they are.”

Of course, our kids, youth and families are raised and living in this very fatalistic society. Social psychologists, like Csikszentmihalyi and Seligman, affirm that helplessness is learned. Many of our kids lack any vision for the future other than what they see in their parents. There isn’t even a perspective which hopes for something different.

What is worse is that we witness fatalism creeping into the church. There I see mixed messages. Some overstress God’s determinism to such an extent that they make God responsible for sin and minimize any human freedom or responsibility. Others proclaim a prosperity gospel, which is a form of positive thinking that has no basis in reality. It is a positive fatalism, believing that certain determined effects follow certain human actions. On the other side of this unhealthy optimism is a millennial pessimism. Those that purport this view believe that things will get worse and worse and then the end will come with cataclysmic destruction. What is worse is that some think that they will be raptured to heaven and saved from the pain of the world, thereby relegating God’s passion for the redemption of creation and skirting any personal responsibility for the stewardship of creation. And even worse is that these bad theologies project fatalism onto the character of God.

These are the shackles of fatalism – a chain that binds the families I serve among, the society in which I live, and my own life. But I would concede to fatalism if I stopped here. There is an alternative, transformative vision for the history and destiny of humanity. There is a reality that breaks our despair.

This reality is God. God, who is Creator, has a plan for the renewal of all creation and refuses to let us go. It isn’t so much that I need to find resources of hope for God, for the world or for our kids; rather, I find that God himself hopes. God hopes for us. In the person of Jesus, God met fatalism and all its correlates at the cross, bringing fatalism to its end. In the resurrection and ascension, Jesus is the declaration, sign and execution of all God’s promises of healing, redemption and transformation. This is the Good News that snaps the chain of fatalism. And it is here that I am invited to live and hope. Our hopes are rooted in God’s.

This does not mean that we simply believe without acting. Ultimately, it means standing in the face of addiction, dependency, death, destruction. There we must either resign ourselves to these domineering finalities, or we must find grounds for hope. And that ground is God. We see that Jesus acknowledges death, destruction and decay. He experiences the weight of this finality, for example, in the death of Lazarus. Jesus wept (John 11:35). But God brings hope, the possibility of change, and even the possibility of the impossible. Jesus said with a loud voice, “’Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (John 11:43-44).

This is not hope that evades and avoids fatalism; rather, it addresses it head on. It is the hope that, with Abraham and Sarah, looks at our bodies and our possibilities and still hopes in God. That is, against possibilities for hope, still they hoped (Romans 5:18).

Hope isn’t something we always have at the start – a source that motivates us in the midst of trials. Rather, it is a result. St. Paul tells us that sufferings produce endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5:3-4). This is hope that is formed in the fire of pain and waiting and unfulfillment.

And this is the place where we must cultivate in the lives of our kids and their families, in our church and in our society. Although hoping hurts and although the things we hope for are not seen and often contradicted, we hope against hope in the promises of our Father in the Son and through the Spirit. Apart from the discipline of hoping against hope, I would also suggest two other actions.
First, we can pray. We pray for the things we hope for. In this way, the very act of prayer cultivates hope. In prayer we affirm our own powerless to transform and our faith that God can. Here I am reminded of the prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr that is said at every Alcoholics Anonymous meeting:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Second, in our communion with God our imaginations are infused with God’s dream for humanity and for creation. As ambassadors of Christ, we are called to give articulation to God’s dream. This is part of the prophetic office of the church. One way that this gift may be manifested is by affirming God’s dream and vision for those that are given over to fatalism.

Although this isn’t necessarily an example from within the church, the move The Cider House Rules depict such words of destiny spoken over children’s futures. It is a story of an orphanage – children that are abandoned and from the very early stages of life are in positions of disadvantage and despair. But every night as the children go to bed, the director of the orphanage tells them, “Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.” This is a prophetic vision that refuses the temptations of fatalism, opening up possibility and horizons to those who thought they had none.

We can affirm the destiny of the children and their families as being God’s creation and God’s beloved. We can affirm God’s plans of good and hope for every life. We can affirm life, wholeness, health and salvation in the face of fatalism. We can invite them to God’s dream and God’s hope for each one: Christ in you, the hope of glory!

Roma, Romanians, Racism and Racial Differentiation

Since this image has been shared on facebook at least 9,200 times and multiplying, I thought I would respond.  Along with the image is the “hope that there is no more confusion” about these two ethnicities. And “those of the opinion that Romanians should no longer be considered Gypsies,” then they should “share this picture wherever they can.”

This message, it seems obvious to me, is racist. However, some think it’s simply a correct view of reality that doesn’t conform to the trends of political correctness. But I think that is a misunderstanding of “political correctness.” To be politically correct would mean that you, at least, adopt terminology like “Roma” or “Romani” rather than “Gypsy” or “Tigani”, which the Romani have rejected because of their derogatory roots and connotations. In this case, I don’t think we succumb to secular liberal ideology by using “Roma” or “Romani”; rather, it seems to me to be an opportunity to show a basic respect, or what Romanians call “bun-simt”. But I don’t want to die on the battlefield of politically correctness. I am willing, however, to fight against racism. This caricature is not simply politically incorrect, it is racist. Let’s walk through this:

1) To caricature the Romanians with 19th and 20th Century great males on one side but the Romani by females in traditional dress is full of denigrating undertones. If it were Romanians in traditional dress on one side and Romani in traditional dress on the other or Romani greats on one side and Romania greats on the other, that would be a step in the right direction.

2) Some have heard the Roma claim that these preeminent Romanians (Eminescu, Enescu, Brancusi, Blaga and Eliade) have Roma heritage. It isn’t unusual for various ethnicities to lay claim to great people. When I was studying in Moldova, I heard Russians laying claim to Eminescu. But I don’t hear those claims much from the Romani or from other Europeans. This is a straw-man argument; it doesn’t support the argument for ethnic differentiation.

3) With over 2 million Romanians spread across Europe, the US and Israel, it begs at least to nuance the affirmation that Romanians are from Romania and Romani from everywhere. There are millions of Romani from Romania. By stating otherwise, this caricature is false. Without any nuancing, the caricature is also racist.

4) It would also be helpful to nuance national identities and ethnic identities. Romani are nationally Romanian, and Romanian Romani are different than Romani from other nations. Additionally, there are many, many who are of mixed ethnicities (i.e. Romani/Romanian) in Romania. What is worse is that many “Romanians” with Roma ancestors deny their own history because of the dominant culture’s views of this marginalized minority – an attitude that amounts not only to the hatred of the other but also the hatred of one’s self.

5) This gets to larger problem with this caricature, which presents the “Gypsies” as the problem, and Romanians as good contributors to culture. If Romanians thought Gypsies were good, I believe that they wouldn’t be so offended when ethnicity and nationality are conflated. This cartoon is a rejection or exclusion of the other.

6) While I don’t paint the whole ethnicity with the same brush, I realize that there is a significant amount of criminal behavior by the Romani in western Europe that attracts the press and portrays the whole ethnicity and even nationality in a negative light. I decry the criminal behavior of Romani. But this can also be said of ethnic Romanians. I personally know dozens of Romanians who are involved in illegal activity in western countries, some of whom are now in jail, who attract the attention of the media. Just look at the area of cyber crime: http://www.news24.com/World/News/Romania-FBI-crack-down-on-cyber-crime-20111219 and http://www.fbi.gov/news/news_blog/u.s.-and-romania-targeting-organized-romanian-criminal-groups. To place the negative image of Romanians on the shoulders of the Romani is a way of scape-goating, and it is racist.

7) Some are upset that the Roma moved to western Europe in the 1990’s, told stories of persecution in Romania, and requested asylum. They were then seen as being “from Romania.” While I realize that many claims of persecution were false, we also need to recognize the places where persecution did occur. For example, Human Rights Report from attacks on Roma villages in the early 1990’s: http://dosfan.lib.uic.edu/ERC/democracy/1993_hrp_report/93hrp_report_eur/Romania.html

8) We also need to introduce historical factors into this discussion. Many Romanians, at best, do not know or, at worst, fail to acknowledge that the first evidence of Romani in Romania was in bills of sale as slaves. I would not promote the idea that contemporary Romanians are presently guilty of slavery or that they must atone for the sins of their ancestors, but I think we would do well to recognize the benefits we reap today by not having a heritage of slavery. The social conditioning that slavery and discrimination has on a people, as we see, is passed from generation to generation. And that is where I think we must share not in guilt but in responsibility for creating equity and inclusion in society.

9) As a Christian, it seems to me the issue is how do we live together and move together toward being what God intends us to be as a human family – without diminishing or confusing identities. If we want to differentiate ethnicities, there are healthier and more constructive ways of doing it.

Bowling Alone

Clint Baldwin led us in a discussion on bowling and social capital, based on Robert Putnam’s book.

Here is a summary:

Declining Social Capital – Trends over the last 25 years:

  • Attending Club Meetings-58% drop
  • Family dinners-43% drop
  • Having friends over-35% drop

  • Joining and participating in one group cuts in half your odds of dying next year.
  • Every ten minutes of commuting reduces all forms of social capital by 10%
  • Watching commercial entertainment TV is the only leisure activity where doing more of it is associated with lower social capital.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000)

by Robert D. Putnam

In a groundbreaking book based on vast data, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures– and how we may reconnect.

Putnam warns that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.

Putnam draws on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women’s roles and other factors have contributed to this decline.

America has civicly reinvented itself before — approximately 100 years ago at the turn of the last century. And America can civicly reinvent itself again – find out how and help make it happen at our companion site, BetterTogether.org, an initiative of the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Here’s how to:

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