October 27, 2014

PEP to Screen Inequality for All

The Board of Directors of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh is concerned about growing income inequality in America. To promote concern for this trend, PEP, along with the Social Justice and Outreach Committee and the Commission on Race and Reconciliation of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh will be hosting a free screening of the Robert Reich documentary Inequality for All at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on November 14. A press release about the event is here. Click on the image below for the flyer for the event. Information about the documentary itself, including the movie trailer, can be found here.

PEP has a Facebook page for this event, from which the press release and flyer are also available. You can find that at http://goo.gl/A0pBwa.
Inequality for All flyer

October 18, 2014

Completing the Michaelmas Massacre

The firing of the eight faculty members of the General Theological Seminary was a shock. (See The GTS 8 and the Michaelmas Massacre.) Yesterday, the Board of Trustees completed their dirty work by affirming their faith in the dean and president of the seminary and failing to reinstate the GTS 8. (See, for example, this piece on The Lead.) My faith in the competence and compassion of the seminary’s Board of Trustees is completely shattered. I believe The Episcopal Church should somehow undo the damage the board has done, but this does not really seem possible.

I had planned to write something today expressing my outrage, but I fear I am too upset and demoralized to do so. (Do read the observations of Crusty Old Dean and A.K.M. Adam, however.) Instead, I offer a collection of words that come to mind describing the Board of Trustees and their action that has completed the Michaelmas Massacre:

Word cloud

October 15, 2014

Letter to GTS Board of Trustees

Members of the Board of Trustees of the General Theological Seminary and the GTS 8 will meet tomorrow in a discussion facilitated by former presiding bishop Frank Griswold. (See my earlier post and yesterday’s story from Episcopal News Service.) I have not been hopeful regarding this meeting, but the late addition of Bishop Griswold suggests that all parties at least realize how much is at stake. Events at GTS are being followed closely by many Episcopalians, including those with no direct connections to our oldest seminary.

A post on the Facebook page of supporters of the GTS 8 pointed to a listing, albeit an incomplete one, of e-mail addresses of the Board of Trustees. Given the importance of tomorrow’s meeting to the future of GTS, and perhaps even to The Episcopal Church itself, I decided to write a letter to all those board members whose address I could find. My letter, sent today via e-mail, is below. I suspect that further comment is unnecessary.
Dear GTS Board Member,

Tomorrow is a critical day for the General Theological Seminary, and I hope that Episcopalians everywhere will receive good news emanating from the meeting with the eight dismissed GTS faculty members and members of the Board of Trustees.

For a dozen years, I have been fighting for and defending The Episcopal Church in a diocese that ultimately split, ostensibly over theological issues, but probably more over issues of power and control. I believed that my church was committed to the least in society, to justice, compassion, and to listening to all voices—in short, to following the path of Jesus.

When I heard of the work stoppage at GTS, I became concerned that something was terribly wrong at the church’s oldest and most revered seminary. My distress increased when the allegations against President Dunkle were disclosed. When I learned that the Board of Trustees had “accepted the resignations” of the eight faculty members, I was at first incredulous.

My attitude quickly turned to anger and frustration. Anger at a board that hired a dean and president with few appropriate credentials to head an academic institution, a board that seemed not to understand how institutions of higher learning operate, and a board that, on learning of a crisis at the institution they oversee, chose to deal with the situation by shooting the messengers. This is not following the lead of our Lord and Savior.

I am frustrated that a major institution associated with the church I love has been responsible for much bad press and for seemingly communicating the message that power and authority are more important that reconciliation and respect for every human being. The crisis at GTS and its inept handling has done immeasurable damage to the reputation of The Episcopal Church and, many are coming to believe, to the future prospects of the seminary.

I implore you, as a member of the Board of Trustees, to do everything you can to rescue GTS from what seems like certain disaster by immediately reinstating the “resigned” faculty members and relieving President Dunkle of his duties until such time as matters can be sorted out. No matter what you do, it will be difficult to convince bishops that they want to send seminarians to GTS any time soon. If the goal of the Board of Trustees is to shut down the school, declare that objective and pursue it in an orderly manner. If your intention is that GTS should survive this crisis, then the time for listening, understanding, and reconciliation is at hand.

My prayers are with you and with all the members of the GTS community.

Yours in Christ,
Lionel Deimel
etc., etc.

October 13, 2014

A Political Ad That Tells It as It Is

Political ads that shade the truth or pull punches are tiresome. Here’s an ad that does neither. It comes from the Agenda Project. (Details are here.)

October 11, 2014

Freedom of Speech at Yale and the Jewish State

Tablet Magazine has published a fascinating interview with the Rev. Bruce Shipman, the Episcopal Yale chaplain who was forced to resign after The New York Times printed a letter from him suggesting that Israel’s behavior toward Palestinians had encouraged attacks on Jewish assets in Europe. The Shipman incident reflects badly on freedom of speech at Yale, but that isn’t what I want to write about today. (Do read the interview, however, but remember that Tablet is a Jewish publication, and the interviewer has a conspicuous bias.)

Shipman explains that he visited the West Bank over spring break and was “deeply troubled” by the way Israelis favored settlers over Palestinians. I was struck by his conclusion: “It is almost too late for a two-state solution.”

Indeed, Israel continues to create facts on the ground that are slowly eating away at territory  Palestinians can call home. The current Israeli administration is clearly intent on claiming all of Palestine for the Jewish state. If it succeeds, however, it will have to abandon any notion that it is a democratic state if it is to remain a Jewish state.

The best outcome is probably a single, secular state in Palestine that guarantees religious freedom. If Jews want a safe haven, this may well be their best option.

(See also my earlier post, “Thoughts on the Future of Israel.”)

A Network Proposal (Is This What TREC Has in Mind?)

As readers will perhaps remember, I was unimpressed with the study paper on networks from the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC). (See “Evaluating the TREC Study Paper on Networks.”) I was reminded of the incoherent treatment of the subject in TREC’s first study paper while reading an essay yesterday published by Marshall Scott. His blog post is “The Chaplain on the TREC: What I’d Like to Hear.” Apparently Scott couldn’t figure out what TREC was getting at, either. In his discussion, he points out that there are many kinds of networks, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, and he argues that the church needs to have a discussion about networks before next year’s General Convention. “I do think, though,” he writes, “that if we don’t have the conversation about our expectations of networks we’ll discover that those concerns get shaped not by our ministries but by the needs of the tools themselves.”

Although networks can inspire and provoke, build and maintain relationships, and help develop leaders—see the recent TREC letter—their use is not free. Staying connected takes time and energy, and one can easily feel overwhelmed by information (or simply chatter).

Since I have no idea what TREC has in mind and am not confident that TREC even has a clear idea of how networks could serve the church, allow me to propose a possibly helpful mechanism. It would be useful for parishes to know what parishes elsewhere are doing, to know what seems to work to advance mission. Sometimes, Episcopal News Service is helpful here. Early news reports of “ashes to go,” imposing ashes on passing pedestrians on Ash Wednesday, seem to have inspired the proliferation of the practice throughout the church. Whatever the spiritual merits of this practice, it has certainly led to some very good publicity for The Episcopal Church.

What would be very helpful, I think, is a network that collected reports of the experience of individual parishes, not only their successes, but also their failures. Although it is helpful to try to reproduce the successful mission initiatives from elsewhere, it is equally important to avoid the mistakes of others or to at least find a way to turn failure into success.

A network of the sort I am suggesting has several requirements. First, churches have to be willing to describe their activities and their results. This includes admitting to abject failures. (Good batters fail at the plate two-thirds of the time. I doubt that churches do any better.) It will be necessary not only to describe big “programs,” but also small initiatives. (We put envelopes for Episcopal Relief and Development at the back of the nave and encouraged worshipers to pick on up and use it.) Fortunately, Episcopalians seem to be good at collecting and reporting statistics. (Consider our parochial reports.)  Entries should include:
  1. What was done and why
  2. What was expected
  3. What actually happened
  4. Whether the practice will continue
  5. Who to contact to learn more
  6. Keywords describing the activity
That last item, keywords, is critical. No one is going to read through thousands of entries to find out if anyone has tried something that a parish is considering doing. There must be a classification system and a database that can easily be queried to learn of related experiences and identify needed expertise.

I am not completely confident that such a network could become a significant asset to support the mission of The Episcopal Church. It would have a steep learning curve and might need people whose job it is to clarify and tweak keywords to make entered information useful. The idea does, I think, have potential to be a game changer.

Is there a diocese that would like to pilot such a network?

October 10, 2014

Voter ID Laws

Voter ID laws are again in the news today. This issue is becoming tiresome, since rational people know very well that the movement to require positive identification at the polls is nothing more than a Republican strategy to deny the vote to people assumed likely to favor Democrats. This becomes particularly obvious when one realizes that many voter ID laws severely restrict what identification is acceptable, disallowing student IDs, for example.

We have heard all too often the sanctimonious rationalizations of voter ID proponents to the effect that requiring IDs at the polls is necessary to preserve the integrity of our elections. This is nonsense.

It’s time to admit to ourselves that our elections are not perfect. Recounts seldom yield vote counts identical to the original tabulations. Voting machines malfunction. Ballots are poorly designed and mislead voters into casting votes other than as they intended. Ballots are marked ambiguously. And, although vote tampering is less prevalent than formerly, it is still possible through any number of mechanisms.

In-person voter fraud, the problem that voter ID laws are ostensibly intended to foil, is either exceedingly rare, or we are unbelievably bad at detecting it. It is difficult to document any instances at all, and it is incomprehensible that it has ever swung an election. If one really wanted to steal an election, having people cast votes on behalf of others is an incredibly inefficient and stupid way to go about it. It would be the equivalent of draining a lake one thimble at a time. The integrity of our elections would be better enhanced by developing better methods of voting (including better voting machines), better ways of reporting vote tallies, and stationing more election judges at the polls.

There is no reason to believe that a law requiring positive ID to vote will prevent fraudulent voting by more than a handful of people. On the other hand, many people who lack an approved ID will simply stay home on election day or will cast a provisional ballot that probably will never be counted. In a given state, there are likely to be tens of thousands of people—perhaps hundreds of thousands of people—disenfranchised thereby. These people are disproportionately poor, nonwhite, or elderly.  They represent a natural constituency of the Democratic Party.

It is helpful to think of voter ID laws by using an analogy to medical testing. When a person appears at a polling place, a test is performed to determine whether that person is qualified to vote. Usually, the test is simply a matter of comparing the person’s self-declared name against a voter list. Voter ID laws require particular forms of identification in order to establish a name that can be compared to the voter list. If we think of allowing a person to vote as a positive test, then voter ID laws seek to prevent false positives. Rejecting an otherwise qualified voter for lack of a specific form of identification becomes a false negative.

A voter ID law eliminates—tries to eliminate, at any rate—false positives at the cost of creating false negatives. No honest observer believes that there are now many false positive test—perhaps a handful in any election. How many false negatives—that is, how many fully qualified voters—have to be disenfranchised to present the handful of false positives? As an example, a judge has just ruled that Wisconsin cannot employ its new voter ID law in November’s election. It has been reported that this affects 300,000 Wisconsin voters who would otherwise be disenfranchised. Is it really worth taking the vote away from, say 60,000 citizens to stop one individual pretending to be someone else. If you’re a Republican, I suppose this does indeed seem like a reasonable tradeoff. In fact, voter ID laws are not really intended to present false positives. They are intended to create large numbers of false negatives.

Curve-stitch Cover Art

Much to my delight, I received a large envelope from Australia yesterday. It contained copies of the latest issue of Vinculum a journal of the Mathematical Association of Victoria  aimed at mathematics teachers. The cover art is my curve-stitch isometric cube design. I had lost track of the publican date, so the arrival of the envelope came as a pleasant surprise.

Journal editor Roger Walter requested permission to use my design, as his “From the Editor” column in the current issue is largely about curve stitching.

I suspect that most readers have no idea what a vinculum is, by the way. I certainly didn’t when I received my first e-mail message from Roger. (Dictionary.com notes that “[f]ew English speakers likely know this word.”) A vinculum can be a bond or tie. In mathematical notation, it is a horizontal line used to group expressions in some way. The horizontal line in a fraction, for example, is a vinculum. (See Wikipedia for more details.)

You can learn about curve stitching and see more of my curve-stitch designs on my Web site here.

The Vinculum cover is shown below. Click on the image for a larger view.


October 6, 2014

Prayer for GTS

Our prayer book is a wonderful source of prayers for almost any occasion. (Curiously, however, it includes no prayer for the celebration of a wedding anniversary.  Is there some theological point to that omission?) On the GTS8 Safe Space Facebook page, Sally Johnson, of Columbia, South Carolina, called attention to this prayer on page 824 of the Book of Common Prayer:
28. In Times of Conflict

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It is certainly appropriate for Episcopalians in light of the chaos at General Seminary and is particularly appropriate for the GTS community, including GTS graduates and the Board of Trustees. It is perhaps particularly relevant to the Board of Trustees, who, after all, are responsible for the Michaelmas Massacre.