Thursday, February 22, 2007

Totally missing the point

What follows is a guest blog by none other than Deborah Milam Berkley, who, remarkably, happens to be both my wife and a first-rate thinker. One might think that the two attributes wouldn’t go together, but felicitously they have for the last 32 years.

The primates of the worldwide Anglican Communion just met in Tanzania, and one of the things they discussed was the U. S. Episcopal Church. A few years ago the leaders of the Anglican Communion had produced the Windsor Report, which had invited the Episcopal Church (TEC) to repent of its going ahead with controversial theology without consulting the rest of the Communion, of consecrating a practicing homosexual bishop, and of blessing same-sex unions; it also requested that TEC stop such consecrations and blessings.

Since TEC's response to the Windsor Report has so far been less than satisfactory, the primates, in a communiqué issued at the end of their recent meeting, decided upon an interim plan to deal with the Episcopal Church until an Anglican Covenant is solidified. Among the items in this plan is a request that TEC unequivocally refrain from blessing same-sex unions:

In particular, the Primates request, through the Presiding Bishop, that the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church ... make an unequivocal common covenant that the bishops will not authorise any Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions in their dioceses or through General Convention....

The Episcopal bishops have until September 30 to make their response to the primates. If the Episcopal bishops do not give a satisfactory response by then, their membership in the Anglican Communion may be at risk.

Already some of the progressives in TEC, such as Susan Russell, Mark Andrus, and Steven Charleston are lamenting this plan and speaking defiantly about it. One in particular, Jim Naughton of the Diocese of Washington, D.C., has commented in a way that I find almost defies belief. About the section of the plan that I have quoted above, regarding same-sex blessings, he says:

The definition of "authorizing," as in we must renounce the authorization of "any Rites for Blessing of same-sex unions," by Sept. 30 will be hotly debated. As I have said before, I think we are being given some room here, as there is a difference between authorizing and allowing. I take comfort in those capital letters. We are being asked not to approve texts. Very, very few dioceses have approved texts. Our diocese doesn't. So I think we can comply with this.

When I read this, I thought, "Does he not get it? Or is he just spinning it to his readership?" In charity, I will assume that he is not being deceitful; but in that case he must be very obtuse. He is missing the whole point. The primates are not merely asking TEC to refrain from writing official liturgies; they are asking TEC to stop doing same-sex blessings altogether.

But Naughton's response to their request is basically, "Hey, this will work. They don't want us to authorize official Rites of Blessing (with capital letters). But we're not doing that. We're only allowing unofficial rites of blessing (without capital letters). So we're just fine! ‘Authorizing’ is way different from ‘allowing,’ and ‘Rites of Blessing’ [capital letters] are different from ‘rites of blessing’ [no capital letters]."

Really, how self-deceived can a person be? It is hard to believe.

The sad thing is, if Naughton and the other progressives press ahead with this strategy, it is not going to work for them. He ought to be smart enough to see this. If they go on with their lower-case rites of blessing, then in September, when the primates ask them why they continued with same-sex blessings, those primates are not going to be satisfied with TEC’s playing about with words. The primates will not be happy if TEC says to them, "Yes, we did comply with your request; we did not authorize any Rites of Blessing; what you see here that we were doing was merely allowing rites of blessing." The primates will not nod in dawning comprehension and say, "Ah, we understand; that's different. OK, no problem." No, in September, if this is TEC's response to the primates' request, then the prospects for TEC as a member of the Anglican Communion do not look good.

Deborah Milam Berkley

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Straining to remember the Bible

In reading the Episcopal News Service report from the meeting of Anglican primates in Tanzania on Friday, I found this section almost comical:

During the final session, the Primates heard from Canon Philip Groves who presented an interim report on the Listening Process, which strives to honor the
process of mutual listening, particular to the experience of homosexual persons.

Groves has been making contacts around the communion and assessing what churches are doing to listen to gay and lesbian people, Aspinall said, acknowledging that there needs to be "established safe ground" for the process to be effective.

He outlined preliminary proposals for the Lambeth Conference and is working on developing high-quality materials that will deal with the experiences of homosexual people, what science can tell us about homosexuality, the legal contexts, the reflection on the Bible, and training resources on facilitating listening.

First, can you imagine listening teams to honor the process of mutual listening, particular to the experience of spousal-abusive persons, or of kleptomanic persons? It always amazes me what legitimacy the sin of homosexual practice receives so routinely in ostensibly Christian circles. Should we give "safe ground" to wife abusers and embezzling treasurers, too, so they can tell their story without fear of repercussions? Some sins--the society-fawned-upon types--get a pass and a pat on the head, it appears.

But second, the wording of the final sentence is amazing. Look for where the Bible fits in the list--AFTER emotional anecdotes, after the apparently superior (and ever-changing) wisdom from overglorified science, and after counsel from lawyers. The Bible, which should be primary, overriding, and authoritative, becomes an emaciated afterthought.

But then look at how what SHOULD be THE authoritative and undisputed reference is treated: "reflection on the Bible." Oh, how sweet! After the Anglicans have heard the highly considered voices from unhappy lives and science and law, they will take a nice little glance at what they feel about what they suppose the Bible might say, however misguided they may find it to be in their superior wisdom.

It doesn't look like they're planning to rigorously exegete texts or submit themselves to the authority of God's Word written, as it transforms their lives. They will instead "reflect on the Bible," much as one reflects on one's childhood or a nice walk in the woods. Maybe they can reflect awhile over martinis, to make it really special.

I can just hear it now: "And now for some reflection on the Bible." It sounds like it should be set to the background music from "Deep Thoughts" by Jack Handey on "Saturday Night Live." What an obvious revelation of the minimal role that Scripture plays in such an exercise!

Aren't Christians supposed to be people of The Book?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Tomato Vendetta

I’ve been thinking lately about the Taco Bell boycott that Presbyterians got involved in at the 2002 General Assembly. The campaign produced results in 2005, when the parent corporation (Yum! Brands) agreed to pay a penny a pound more for tomatoes picked for Taco Bell (but interestingly, not for its other brands, such as Pizza Hut).

The “victory” was celebrated at General Assembly in 2006, and then sights were set on other big fast-food giants. McDonald's and Burger King also buy Florida tomatoes. Could they be pressured to do what Taco Bell did?

News has just come out that Burger King will not surrender. The Miami Herald wrote a story that seems to be cribbed directly from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) own publicity.

McDonald's had already arched its back to the CIW demands, saying that its own pay and labor policies are already correcting the problems. CIW was not satisfied (click here and scroll to the 5/11 article).

A third party--one of the original shareholders filing a resolution to force YUM! Brands to raise wages by a penny a pound--conducted a study of tomato pickers’ pay at one grower that supplies tomatoes for McDonald's. The study concludes that these particular pickers earn a decent wage, better than minimum wage and better than what the Taco Bell campaign was seeking. But CIW contends that that study was tainted by partial funding by McDonald's, is riddled with errors, and should be considered sham research.

So where does that leave us?

My guess would be that the truth of the matter lies somewhere between the CIW/Presbyterian attitude that fast-food corporate tomato buyers are lying oppressors, and the McDonald's and Burger King corporate statements that make things look rather okay for the tomato pickers. There seems to be a lot of self-interest operating on both sides of the issue, which makes it troublesome that the Presbyterian Church would thus so routinely act as if CIW were always noble and corporations were always despicable--unless those corporations decide to do what Presbyterians demand.

While poking around the issue, here are some things I found and considered:

First, despite the clamor and glare of publicity around the YUM! Brands capitulation to the Taco Bell boycott, tomato laborers as a whole gained very little. Perhaps a thousand workers were affected, and then only when they pick tomatoes that end up being sold to Taco Bell and not to other YUM! Brands chains.

I wrote to Ruth Rosenbaum, PhD, Executive Director of the Center for Reflection, Education and Action, Inc. (CREA) in Hartford, Connecticut. She headed the promising but disputed study of pay for tomato pickers above. I asked if anyone had studied the relative sense of wellbeing for the Taco Bell tomato pickers before and after the penny-a-pound increase. Were they indeed better off after all the publicity and years of effort?

“The short answer,” Dr. Rosenbaum replied, “is that there has been some benefit to the workers picking for the tomato growers who sold to YUM! for Taco Bell. But big effect, unfortunately no.” It appears that the main effect of the YUM! Brands agreement was much more rhetorical and symbolic than it was sweepingly revolutionary for the wellbeing of the pickers. That’s a shame.

I also wanted to know if nearly doubling the wages for the Taco Bell pickers created an economic ripple, raising the rates other pickers receive or causing a shortage of pickers for other growers, because all the pickers would naturally want to pick for the growers supplying Taco Bell.

“There really is no such study,” Dr. Rosenbaum lamented. It turns out that neither CIW nor those funding its boycott campaign were interested in participating in a study before and after the YUM! Brands agreement. Thus the data aren’t available, and we cannot say for sure if the boycott accomplished much actual benefit, when all is said and done.

Second, CREA is working on an additional study of a set of growers who supply tomatoes to repackers who sell to McDonald's. The single grower in the first study had exemplary practices in relation to its pickers. The preliminary results from the other growers are mixed, according to Rosenbaum. The report is yet to be released but will become public.

Third, at a time when the PCUSA was cutting its staff and especially its missionary force by dozens and dozens of persons, the Taco Bell boycott brought about the hiring in 2004 of a United Church of Christ pastor as the PCUSA Associate for Fair Food Concerns. Noelle Damico appears on the staff of the Presbyterian Hunger Program and is hot on the trail of Burger King, McDonald's, Subway, and others.

Fourth, while McDonald's has not rolled over to the CIW boycott, it has taken some decent steps toward fairness and against some despicable labor practices of the worst operators. The rhetoric of CIW in response thoroughly discounts anything McDonald's has done (click here and scroll to 1/31/07). One would think that at least such excellent McDonald's practices as stipulating that pickers be hired as regular employees and not day laborers would be commended.

Fifth, Burger King has also refused to accede to the CIW boycott, but it has offered the CIW laborers an opportunity to enter into the Burger King work force. This would give willing migrant workers a permanent job with training and advancement opportunities. Such workers could foresee a modest future rather than the defeating cycle of grinding poverty in migrant farm labor.

This Burger King response was immediately met by derision and union posturing by the organizers at CIW. The Burger King rationale, however, bears some consideration. Burger King does not hire, supervise, or pay tomato pickers. Burger King buys from tomato repackers that buy from growers that hire the pickers. If one wants to change labor practices, shouldn’t one go to the grower as the responsible party, not to the end user two parties removed? Burger King operates all over the nation, however, and thus makes a nice, juicy target. Ubiquity seems to be Burger King’s greatest vulnerability; it can be picketed anywhere with ease! The same was true for Taco Bell.

Sixth, Christian compassion for the migrant tomato pickers is due. The situation of migrant farm workers in the tomato fields is definitely no picnic. The labor is back breaking and the pay is minimal. Conditions are hot and dirty.

On top of that, human depravity has found ways to further exploit and even criminally victimize the workers. Slavery has been found and prosecuted in several instances. Some corrupt employers are accused of shorting paychecks. Some bullying crew bosses require favors, take kickbacks, and tyrannize “troublemakers.” Irregular hours combine with low pay and day-labor conditions to ensure poverty and no job security.

There can be no denying that the lot of the tomato picker is dreadful. Everything reasonable and fair ought to be done to bring about justice, compassion, and fair play for these bottom-of-the-heap jobholders. Advocacy and a helping hand seem to be logical responses to the unfairness and misery of the pickers’ lot. Prayer and concern seem essential as well.

However, human nature is such that not everything CIW contends and wants can be entirely noble, and not everything growers and corporate buyers contend and provide can be entirely evil. Farm workers and those who organize them can be controlled at times by inflated self-interest and at times by humanitarian goodness. Tomato growers and large corporations who eventually buy their tomatoes may be controlled at times by greed and exploitation and at times by good intentions and kindness.

The trick for those of us wanting to support what is right is to move beyond the immediate stereotyping and overheated rhetoric to seek to discern the truth of the matter as best we can.

One final thought: Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick loaded on a heavy helping of guilt in his letter to Burger King: “Any company who profits from the exploitation of others is morally and ethically responsible for ending that exploitation.” That is pretty strong language: profiting from exploiting others. Kirkpatrick just assumes that Burger King condones or even promotes exploitation.

I wonder if Kirkpatrick ever considers his own advice. Any denomination that profits from the exploitation of others is morally and ethically responsible for ending that exploitation. Hmmm. What might that have to do with Kirkpatrick’s aggressive disputes over property and per capita with congregations feeling mightily exploited by their denomination?