Reflecting on the Recall from a quiet Capitol Square

Well, the Solidarity Sing-a-long is back and as boisterous as ever but other than that…

I retired as a political pundit after confidently predicting in my high school newspaper in January 1976 that Jimmy Carter would received the Democratic nomination for president that year, so I have nothing to say about the recall. You’ll have to go elsewhere for commentary about winners and losers and all of that.

But as an eyewitness to the events over the last sixteenth months, I am struck by several things. First of all, a parishioner was in my office talking about the recall and other things. She had been very engaged in the process, regularly participated in the Solidarity Sing-a-long on the Capitol Steps, and earlier this week spoke to me of her deep anxiety about what might happen on Tuesday.

Today, she spoke about the justice of God, and Christ’s triumph over the powers of evil. We talked about the difference between the justice called for by God, the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus Christ, and the realities of the political systems in which we live. We can never succumb to the temptation to believe the political causes in which believe are somehow ushering in God’s reign. To do so, whether on the left or right, is to turn our faith into political ideology. We have seen that too often on the right, and those on the left should learn a lesson from that.

There is something deeper here, a deeper longing, a greater value that somehow got subsumed in the political process, subsumed to recall elections. And many of those most invested in the protests allowed their voice and concerns to be channeled into more narrow efforts at political gain and interest group politics.

Reasonable men and women can disagree about the power of unions (just as they can disagree about the power of corporate money in politics). What was lost over the last year and a half was the deeper sense that what was at stake was a vision of the common good, a sense that in order for difficult problems to be solved, people had to come together to talk about them. Sure, we’ve lost that on the national level; if I fault Gov. Walker for anything, it is for the tactics he and the Republicans used to divide us as a community.

We live in an era of “winner-take-all” and demonization. That is as true on the left as on the right; it is more and more true in the church as well.

The problems haven’t gone away. They’re still there, and in some respects, the problems (unemployment, for example) are deeper and more intractable than ever. But what I sense today is that there are some efforts being made to move beyond the deep divisions and the pain that has existed over the last year and a half here in Wisconsin; an attempt to reach out to rebuild community and a sense of the common good.

There is also some soul-searching going on in the progressive community, questioning whether the recall movement was the best way to focus energy and efforts. From my perspective, the recalls fed the fires of partisanship and division, and prevented Walker’s opponents from offering a compelling vision of an alternative to the vision articulated by Walker and others. There was a great deal about the importance of unions from the protesters, but I didn’t hear a word of debate or discussion about whether it was appropriate for the Teamsters and the IBEW to have their huge trucks parked on Capitol Square throughout the protests. To put it bluntly the election was fought over partisan politics and the power of unions, and not over issues of the common good.

If there is a role for communities of faith in our political discourse, it ought to be, as I’ve said repeatedly, that we provide a model where people with differing views can come together to discuss, debate, and disagree. We don’t do that particularly well, but if we can learn how to be community across the divisions that separate us, we can help to shape a vision for our larger society that allows us to come together to work for the common good, across our political, economic, and ethnic divide.

St. Paul wrote in Galatians, “in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. That vision of the body of Christ may not have been fully realized, even by Paul, but it should stand before us as a model for our religious communities, and for our civil society as well (where ethnicity, socio-economic division, religious difference need not prevent us for working toward a common good).




Witness to history: the Wisconsin Recall

I’m feeling rather Calvinist this evening, knowing the results are out of our hands and in the hands of God’s providence.

A couple of impressions from today. First, Grace was open and a few people came in to look around and to pray. One woman who spoke with me was here from Minnesota to be with family who were deeply involved in the recall. She stopped in to pray and then we talked. She shared with me some of her story, her hopes and fears for today and for the future.

I walked around the square, as I try to do on a regular basis. There weren’t a lot of people around, but there was a nervous energy. And the network news trucks were there. CNN and Fox News were both parked a block and a half a way from Grace.

Back at Grace, I sat down with the parishioner who was volunteering at the reception desk this afternoon. He’s retired from the newspaper business, a former reporter on the Wisconsin political beat. He shared with me some of the wisdom he had gained about Wisconsin over his fifty years following politics. He also told me that as a cub reporter, he had been assigned to Joe McCarthy. Without making any explicit connection between the two politicians, he pointed out that a Walker victory tonight would vault him onto the national stage, just as McCarthy had gained national attention 60 years ago.

He also mentioned to me that nearly thirty years ago, a former rector of Grace had had a regular prayer service for people who worked in the Capitol. We both wondered whether something similar might be meaningful in the context of our divided polity.

Whatever happens tonight, Grace’s doors will be open tomorrow morning, offering a place for prayer in the midst of a tumultuous world.

The night before the recall

As the day went on today, Capitol Square began to show signs of tomorrow’s election. Once again, media descended. I passed one reporter filing a story from the median on W. Wash. I’m told MSNBC and Fox News are here again, as well. No doubt there are others, but I didn’t walk the square to see. As evening came, car horns played the rhythm of “This is what democracy looks like.

Still, life on the square continued as it does on an early summer evening. It’s First Monday, so we opened our doors to feed shelter guests and community residents. I left early, hoping there would be enough food, because it was obvious that there would be a large number of people dining with us who wouldn’t be staying in the shelter (where numbers have been averaging around 60 since the first of June.

It may have been quiet except for the homeless on our side of the square, but on another corner, things were picking up. Here’s a photo, retweeted by The Daily Page (originally from Judith Davidoff), of the gathering at the King St. entrance:

Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Those I talk with express their concern and anxiety and as I mentioned in my sermon on Sunday, whatever happens tomorrow, we will still need to work together toward the common good (even if some don’t see that as value or goal).

I’m pondering a pastoral response in these days, what to say and do. At this point, besides voting, I suppose the only actions I can take besides voting are to pray and to continue to make Grace Church a sacred presence on the square. We will have noonday prayer tomorrow and Eucharist on Wednesday (both at 12:10 pm) and the church will be open before and after those times for people to come in.

I read as a concluding collect in Sunday’s prayers of the people the following:

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen. (BCP p. 823)


Give us a King! Lectionary reflections on Proper 5, Year B (June 10, 2012)

This week’s readings.

I’m not sure what divine irony (or is it the Holy Spirit?) put the Wisconsin Recall election during the week when we will read the story of Israel’s demanding that God give them a king. Our reading from the Hebrew Bible comes from I Samuel 8 and it depicts the deep ambivalence over monarchy that is at the heart of the biblical text.

On the one hand, the problems with direct divine rulership or prophetic leadership are clear. The book of Judges ends with an ominous verse: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Judges depicts a descending cycle of anarchy as the tribes of Israel fail to follow God. Samuel picks up the story. While he is portrayed as a gifted prophet, priest, military leader, and judge, his sons (just as Eli’s sons before him) do not follow in his footsteps. As Samuel ages, problems again come to the fore.

The people’s response is to demand a king, like the nations around them. Ultimately, there will be a ruler and a dynasty that is considered to have divine legitimacy and divine favor (the Davidic monarchy). Later generations will look back on David and Solomon as great and wise rulers, and their reigns as a golden age but at the same time, there will arise in conjunction with the monarchy, the institution of Hebrew prophecy that will call kings and people to justice and to obedience to Torah.

That ambivalence is present in this week’s reading. The demand for kingship is a rejection of divine kingship. Of equal importance are the implications for society of a monarchy:

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; [and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.] He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

One could draw all sorts of lessons from this text for our political situation–both on the state and the national level. What strikes me, however, is the desire for someone to provide easy answers, to solve deep and lasting problems with a sword or legislation. The problems for Israel were deeper than the leadership at the top. Indeed, one could argue that the concluding verse from Judges, is not so much an indictment of political leadership as it is a comment on society as a whole: “all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” In other words, it may be that it was the people’s refusal to follow Torah that was at the heart of the matter.

Will a change in leadership on either the state or national level solve the deep problems that plague our society? Will change (or staying the course, for that matter) lead to greater justice and equity? Are we like the Israelites, who demanded a simple solution to complex problems?


A Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Year B

June 3, 2012

 Corrie and I were driving around southeastern Wisconsin yesterday, and everywhere we went, we saw signs for the upcoming election. Granted, there were many more expressing support for Governor Walker in the countryside and small towns through which we drove than one finds in Madison, but there was evidence of the deep divide throughout our state. In one small town, we saw a yard filled with signs for Walker; right next to it was a house with just as many signs showing support for Barrett. I wonder if those neighbors are on speaking terms. Continue reading

A Season of Civility

The Wisconsin Council of Churches has issued this statement:

Wisconsin Council of Churches Calls For a
Season of Civility

Thirty six religious leaders from throughout Wisconsin called upon our state to enter into a “Season of Civility” amidst the partisan rancor of the current recall campaigns and the anticipated divisiveness of the fall election cycle.
Read the statement here
The “Call for a Season of Civility” statement draws a parallel between the religious values embodied in “the Golden Rule,” to treat others as we would like to be treated, with the idea of democracy, which is based on regard for the value of each and every individual.
In the statement, our religious leaders commit to model and support respectful and honest conversations on public issues within our congregations, assemblies and forums.
We also call upon candidates to adhere to high standards of civility, integrity and truthfulness in their advertising, including those of “third parties.” We invite all of our citizens to be critical consumers of media and advertising.

We now invite pastors and other local religious leaders to sign the “Call To a Season of Civility” statement.  If you would like to add your name to the list of signatories, send an email with complete contact information to  We will post the list to our web site with weekly updates as signatures are added.

Religion and Politics–in the nation and in Wisconsin

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald comments on the continuing debate over the role of religion in politics:

It feels progressive to say that we should’t mix religion and politics, because it feels like by saying so we are upholding the dream of our founders, but when citizens allow their politics to be informed by religious convictions, they are not leading our country down a slippery slope toward theocracy, they are being fully engaged citizens. This requires dialogue and compromise, give and take; it is not the easiest way forward, but, really, it’s the only way.

Consistent with that perspective, yesterday a group of Madison-area clergy held a press conference in which they expressed concern with the recently-passed budget. Their arguments used religious language and came out of the scriptural traditions of Judaism and Christianity. Several clergy stressed the importance that their religious perspectives be part of the public debate, when so often, the only religious voices being heard or receiving notice come from the Religious Right. The full document produced by the group, Concerned Religious Leaders of Wisconsin, is here.


One way to respond to the demonization of political opponents

I took a phone call from a reporter for a Madison media outlet a couple of weeks ago. He had recently returned to Madison after several years abroad and was shocked by the breakdown of community in Madison since he had left. Because of the developments in state government and the protests, deep fissures have arisen in Madison. Debate has given way to name-calling, and as he put it, everything seems black or white. I could do no more than concur with his assessment, having experienced myself that any attempt at nuance is often perceived as betrayal or attack.

For this, both sides share responsibility. The effects on our civic life will be felt for a very long time and our community may never be the same. But in the midst of this polarized and polarizing situation, there are signs of an alternative.

During the height of the protest, talk show hosts and others were quick to spew forth epithets. When one radio personality called police and firefighters who were protesting, “lousy, rotten people,” who used violence and intimidation, Lt. Laura Laurenzi of the Madison Fire Department challenged her to provide video proof of such behavior, or to make a substantial donation to a local charity. No proof was forthcoming.

Lt. Laurenzi wanted to make something good out of this, so she challenged members of Firefighters Local 311 to make a donation and promised that she would match their generosity. The firefighters donated $1000 to Porchlight. In return, Lt. Laurenzi wrote a check for $1000 to Grace’s Food Pantry. Her donation will help purchase food and other supplies for people suffering during these difficult economic times.

Lt. Laurenzi did something quite interesting. She demanded that her opponent examine the language she used; she attempted to open up a conversation with her opponent, and she demanded that she be treated as a human being. That her opponent didn’t respond is not suprising. What is surprising is that Lt. Laurenzi made something good out of a dehumanizing situation.

As the dust has settled on the budget, and the protests have diminished, we are left in a community and in a state that seems to be at war with itself. The hard work of reconciliation lies ahead. I wonder who will take the lead.

Grace in the midst of it.

Another Saturday, another rally. There was a good deal of sunshine today, but it was cold and rather windy. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got downtown this morning. After Wednesday and Thursday, I thought the mood might be somber. It wasn’t. There was a great deal of exuberance and laughter in spite of what had happened. Perhaps the tone was set by the tractor-cade:

Here’s the view of W. Washington from the courtyard this evening:

Here’s the view from Grace this afternoon:

We were helped by a great group of volunteers and many parishioners dropped by to see if they could help (and to warm up). We had hot cider on offer. That and our warm space were much appreciated as the rally wound down.