Archive for the ‘pulp’ Category

Do we even need religion any more?

Friday, November 12th, 2010

Do we even need religion any more?
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

It’s no secret that organized religion in America has slipped dramatically in the public eye during the past several decades. Though just as many people claim to have some sort of faith in a higher power, since the 1970s we’ve witnessed a steady decline in church attendance.

This isn’t exactly the case across the board. Large churches, with membership over 500 people, are still pretty strong overall, and the more conservative evangelical churches tend to maintain their bases of folks more than the moderate, so-called
“mainline” churches.

There are a handful of reasons why this downward trend has continued for nearly two generations. First, an increasingly mobile population, held together more by technology than by geography, has dissolved many of the physical, social centers that helped make up communities in the past. After all, why go through the painstaking effort of getting the whole family out of bed and dressed when you can just hit folks up on Facebook, or Skype grandma, who now lives more than a thousand miles away?

Second, there’s been a pervasive suspicion of all things institutional that took hold particularly around the Watergate/Vietnam era. Prior to this, most people held something of an inherent trust of the systems of governance and authority, assuming they had the best interests of the general public at heart. But with the scandals, protests and violence of the ’60s and early ’70 came a cynicism about powerful institutions that we’ve never shaken since, and, perhaps, with good reason.

Add to this the breakneck speed of the distribution of information and the lack of filters to contain and/or verify what’s true and what’s garbage before it reaches consumers. On one hand, this explosion of the information age has democratized the information-sharing process; on the other, it’s created more opportunities for gossip, scandal exposes and even outright slander.

The all-seeing eye of the interconnected world misses little these days, and there few things that it loves than watching the mighty fall, especially when there’s also sex involved. So when ministers are caught getting a massage with benefits or predatory priests are found to be molesting boys, it’s sure to make headlines.

Some folks assume that early Christianity was all about establishing churches, but the institution we now see as organized religion didn’t come along until much later. Jesus himself didn’t spend much time in the synagogues, opting instead for small gatherings in homes and traveling the countryside to talk with whomever he came across.
It wasn’t until three centuries later when the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity as the official religion of the empire that the community of believers began to seriously get both organized and powerful. Though Constantine’s motives for converting to Christianity are arguable, most historians believe the move was more about consolidating power than it was about his faith.

Over the following centuries, the powerful combination of church and state helped spread Christianity to all corners of the world – often at the point of a sword – while the church willingly sanctioned the conquest of nations by rulers who claimed fidelity to the church. It was a convenient, if unsavory, marriage.

So, given the fact that the earliest church was more of a movement than an institution, and considering that, later, the real strength of the institutional church was built upon the backs of millions it forced into claiming loyalty, perhaps the institutional church as it stands actually is a bastardized version of what an otherwise peaceful and life-giving community of faith had to offer.

What if, after all the time, money and effort that’s gone into propping up our religious institutions, it’s actually those very institutions that are keeping communities of faith from doing the real work of positive social change to which they’re called?

In the end, every faith community has to continually take its own pulse, asking if the effort and resources being expended are primarily intent on keeping a building or power structure in place, or if those institutions and systems are, as they ideally should be, simply a means to a greater end.

Meanwhile, house churches and loosely networked faith groups continue to spring up, much like the seeds of early Christianity before religious barons ever thought about buildings, polity, conquest or empire. Many would see the collapse of the institutional church as we now know it as a failure of faith and humanity. But what if, after all the dust settled, we were left with something more genuinely focused on mission rather than on institutionality?

It’s hard to comprehend now, but perhaps we’re witnessing an evolution of human faith, shedding one older, rigid skin for a more pliable, adaptable one. Regardless, humanity’s resolve to maintain belief in something greater than itself has endured far worse than a weakened system of authority and some crumbling buildings. We’ll continue to seek an understanding of the divine, with or without the church.

Questioning the sanity of a two-party system

Monday, September 27th, 2010

NewSpin
Privacy, partisanship and political punditry
(Originally published in PULP)

I love my privacy.

In an era with more information coming at each of us in a month than previous generations experienced in a lifetime, we have to be vigilant about our mental and physical personal space. Whereas we began as hunters and foragers, now we expend a similar amount of energy holding things at arms’ length.

I have three different spam filters on my e-mail accounts, siphoning out nearly all of the junk from my e-mail box before it lands on my laptop. I’m on every do-not-call and do-not-mail list I can find, and the absence of clutter that results is nothing short of blissful.

Then comes election season.

For years I identified myself as a progressive independent, reserving my fidelity to a case-by-case assessment of the candidates available. This varied widely, by the way, as I lived everywhere from Chicago to Seattle and several points in between; it seemed to make more sense to stay neutral until someone provided me with enough motivation to pick a side.

It wasn’t until I ran for Pueblo school board several years ago that I saw the inherent advantage of being a part of a political party. Registering as a Democrat for me was almost like finally taking the plunge with a longtime girlfriend and popping the question. Our values had largely aligned for long enough; now we were official.

My fellow Democrat activists did their part to support my candidacy, for which I remain grateful, despite my loss. But since then I continue to question my affiliation with a major party once again, given the blizzard of mailings, robo-calls and TV advertising that we get buried under for months around every election.

There’s a fine line between being informed and being overwhelmed or even coerced. Though I believe the major parties act more or less above board and in accordance with election laws, I can’t help but feel that I’m just barely surviving every election cycle. What’s more, having been a candidate, I know that many political rainmakers actually can ascertain whether you voted or not. I can’t help but feel like someone — Big Brother? The godfather? — is watching me.

Finally, My biggest concern remains the continuation of a broken, two-party system. It seems we’re caught in a loop where the Republicans take the majority, then suffer ignominious loss under the white-hot microscope of modern media, being exposed and then leaving the door open for the Democrats to claim the next cycle. The Dems, in turn, get beaten up for similar allegations of fiscal impropriety, scandal or, more likely, just routine ineffectiveness. And on and on it goes.

So the balance shifts back and forth every two, four, six or eight years, rendering the whole system somewhat impotent as more and more time, money and energy go into which party has 50 percent plus one, and thus is able to subjugate the other almost-half to its will.

I’m starting to believe that the only solution is for a third party (or maybe more) to gain enough of a foothold that neither major party can expect to hold the majority. I’m no friend of the teabaggers — excuse me, tea partiers — but I certainly understand their discontent. As a Democrat, I’m actually encouraged by the potential effect they’ll have on the Republican base, but it’s only a matter of time before the greens or some other progressive group kicks the donkeys in the proverbial rump.

So what’s the solution? Do I break away and support a third party, hoping it will someday lead to consensus-building, but also knowing it may hurt the cause of those candidates with similar ideals to mine? Or do I toe the party line, helping continue to feed a political beast I am afraid is actually doing more harm than good to representative democracy?

With November looming, it’s only a matter of months — maybe days — after that until we start talking presidential politics and the 2012 showdown. It seems there’s so much at stake, both in the short and long terms, that neither solution presents a satisfying outcome.

On the upside, these political pamphlets and flyers are going to make one hell of a bonfire, come winter.

Going out of our way to be uncomfortable

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Going out of the way to be uncomfortable (Smells Like Spirit column)
(Originally published in PULP)

I’m a sucker for nearly any reality show in which participants undergo a radical transformation. I love the big payoff at the end of the Biggest Loser season; I watch American Idol like a tweenie fan; and I’m man enough to admit I’m a total sucker for a makeover.

That’s why, when Morgan Spurlock, creator and star of the documentary film Super Size Me, started a new TV series called 30 Days, I was hooked before I even saw the pilot.

The show follows the same sort of immersive, autobiographical documentary style as his film, placing people in situations unlike their typical environment for a month and watching how they respond, generally with some thread of social commentary at the core. In the first show, he and his girlfriend got minimum wage jobs and tried to live below the poverty line, with very sobering results.

But we pulled up on Netflix two more recent shows from the first season, both of which I think should be required viewing in all Christian churches. The first placed a traditional evangelical in Dearborn, Mich., to live with a Muslim family in a heavily Muslim neighborhood for 30 days. The second sent a good ol’ boy from the Nebraska farmland to live in the Castro district in San Francisco, commonly known as “the gayest place on the planet.”

In both cases, the men came in with strong preconceptions about — or against — the groups with which they were to cohabitate, judgments generally originating from the media, popular stereotypes in culture and of course, their churches. By the end, both men, though not divested of their original faith, were radically reoriented in the way they thought about people they thought they understood.

No, the farm boy didn’t come home in leather chaps or with a suitcase full of sex toys, and the evangelical didn’t toss out his Bible to make room for his Quran (but he did put them on the shelf next to each other). Both seemed to fear as much would happen, simply by opening themselves up to a different experience.

What the show demonstrates most importantly is twofold: Most of the most painful divisions between us as individuals and groups originate in fear, and direct personal relationship is bigger than that same fear in most cases.

So how do we go about allowing for such important transformation to take place out front in front of a camera? It seems that we have to go out of our way to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations. Not a natural inclination, and certainly not a popular angle for churches desperate to fill their pews and coffers with happy congregants, but if we’re seriously about the business of social healing and reconciliation, what other choice do we have?

Sure, lots of churches offer mission trips to help out in places unlike our home towns, but, often, those sorts of service projects – where we feel we have something of value to bring to those we’re helping, and not the other way around – are an inherent setup for an imbalance of power.

Also, the sort of change we’re talking about doesn’t seem to take place in a weekend, or even in a weeklong trip. It’s been said that it takes doing something 21 times in a new way before old habits are broken. So maybe a minimum of three weeks is required.

Of course few, if any, of us has three weeks to give up in order to travel somewhere with the explicit goal of being changed. It’s against our nature to seek unfamiliarity and to consciously look for things to challenge our worldview, let alone using every bit of vacation we have to do it. So yeah, I’m a bit of an idealist, and there’s potential in the idea.

Every community has its share of diversity, be it economic, cultural, sexual or otherwise. Part of the whole intent is not just to be more willing to seek out direct engagement with different types of people, but to do so in the spirit of openness, acknowledging that perhaps our views could actually benefit from being stretched a little.

Consider yourself a little homophobic? Sit in on a few Equality Alliance or PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meetings, or grab a cold one at the Pirate’s Cove, Pueblo’s only openly gay bar (that I know of, anyway).

Consider yourself to be agnostic or atheist? Go to church for a few months, not to become un-atheist, but to learn more about the thing you supposedly don’t believe in. Love your evangelical church? Check out a pagan festival or a Wiccan gathering, if there’s one open to the public.

The key question is: What can it hurt? Worst case, your preconceptions and objections are confirmed. Best case, you learn something, and maybe so do the folks with whom you engage. And if you’re really so worried about the potential change that may take place in yourself, maybe it’s worth wondering what the basis of your beliefs is in the first place.

After all, if a few encounters with the unfamiliar can bring your house of cards crashing down, it sounds like the raw material may not have had the soundest integrity to begin with.

NewSpin: Noise Pollution, Tax Solutions and a New Infusion

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

NewSpin
Noise Pollution, Tax Solutions and a New Infusion

By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

In a knee-jerk decision, Pueblo City Council established a new sound ordinance based on a woman’s complaint about a neighbor’s garage band practicing nearby. The gist of the ordinance is that, if your neighbors can hear you, it’s too loud.

Though the reaction was particular to bands, some folks are hoping that this will create a blanket under which barking dogs and raucous parties will be included too. But why stop there? Consider some other potential noise pollution we could stanch while we’re at it.

More or less every morning, I’m awakened by a muscled-up diesel truck from down the street that leaves for a construction site not long after the sun creeps up. Guess he’ll be walking from now on, as will all the “crotch rocket” offenders who rev their imported motorcycles to eleventy-seven million RPMs. Oh, and of course there are the choppers and hot rods; I don’t want to leave them out.

And talk about noise – the playground right across the street fills the air with squeaks and squeals I can hear in my living room with the doors and windows closed. Sorry kids, but looks like we’ll be shutting you down too.

Apologies in advance to both the Pride City band, which practices down the street in Mineral Palace Park every summer, and to the church across the street whose bells chime three times a day, seeping insidiously into nearby residences. Things just won’t be the same without you, but hey, at least they’ll be quiet.

My point isn’t necessarily that all homeowners just need to buck up and live with any level of noise, but here’s a mind-blower: Consider going over and talking to your neighbor face-to-face instead of complaining to the government to fix your personal problems.

And as for city council, such a narrow-minded and impulsive reaction certainly will have more negative consequences than anyone took the time to consider. What, do they assume, these young people will do with their free time instead of pouring their energy into music? Should they spend more time on the streets, looking for something quiet to do? And how about the impact on the local culture? Sure, the lady next door may not like Sonic Vomit or whatever band the local musicians are into, but without such freedom to explore, a community’s artistic voice becomes homogenized at best, and at worst, it dries up and moves on.

Further, did anyone consider the economic impact of this ordinance? It’s easy enough to look at young musicians as penniless moochers, siphoning off their parents (I was one of them too), but eventually, we fine-tune our skills to the point that some of us start picking up gigs, maybe drop an album or hit the road for a tour. If nothing else, we buy plenty of new musical equipment and recordings when we have those few precious pennies to rub together. If we are allowed to actually use them, that is.

Time and again, communities that have made a concerted effort to create space for art and music to flourish are rewarded by the fruits of such cultural roots. Consider Santa Fe Street in Denver, Deep Ellum in Dallas, and on and on goes the list in hundreds of forward-thinking cities that understand that original art is the heartbeat of a community’s culture.

As for Pueblo, we pour money into maintaining decaying buildings in every part of town, while telling local bands we have no use for them. But hey, at least the woman who complained can watch “Jeopardy” and do her Sudoku in peace.

On a more positive note, kudos to Pueblo City School’s board for its recent selection of a new interim superintendent, Dr. Margarita Lopez, as Kathy West moves over to manage the growing and successful magnet program at Fountain, Corwin, East High and other schools.

Lopez served most recently as assistant superintendent for learning services in Academy School District 20 just to the north.

“For most of us, this was our third search in five years,” says board president Stephanie Garcia. “This search was for an interim and it is our hope that we can take some time to get to know one another and later make a decision about making the position permanent.”

Given our bi-cultural community, it’s a hopeful sign in itself that we now have someone who is bilingual at the helm of the district. “Dr. Lopez … is a native Spanish-speaker and grew up in a bilingual and bicultural world,” says Garcia. “When she arrived in this country there were no English as a Second Language programs. She credits great teachers for helping her to learn English and learn about the American culture. Her educational experiences were the impetus for her success. Her passion for education is inspirational for all.”

To have someone who not only understands the nuances of bicultural education, but who also has the opportunity to serve as a role model for one of our most at-risk groups of kids – Hispanic girls – speaks more to the board’s current vision for the district than even her training and educational experience.

It’s also a relief that we’re looking locally for talent, with significant cost savings at that, rather than assuming our qualified leadership must come from somewhere else. Here’s hoping the “permanent relationship” Garcia and her colleagues seek becomes a reality.

Finally, there’s the matter of some logic-challenged tax cut proposals being put to a public vote during the forthcoming election cycle. Though on the surface, everyone loves the idea of a tax break, Amendments 60, 60 and Proposition 101 would effectively dismantle – I would argue intentionally and with malice of forethought – many services most of us consider essential.

Amendment 60 proposes to halve our already relatively low property tax . The biggest loser in this case would be our public schools. “Pueblo City Schools may be considering school closures if K-12 funding continues to decline,” says Garcia. “Amendment 60 would make this inevitable.”

The more benign-sounding Amendment 61 champions the Tea Party ethos of eliminating government borrowing. But what many don’t consider is that this removes the ability even to issue government bonds. Because public revenue streams don’t make room for things like capital construction and improvements in most cases, we’d be left with the schools and other buildings we have, hoping nothing happens that would precipitate a facility closure.

Finally, Proposition 101 proposes reducing vehicle registration taxes to their lowest level in 90 years, amounting to around $2.5 million more in cuts to Pueblo City Schools.

So, if the goal is to cut taxes to the point that services like public education, transportation, health care, prevention programs and perhaps even law enforcement cave in upon themselves, I suppose these proposals offer one efficient way to do that. Personally, I find the effort to dismantle state and local governments from the inside out by putting forward obtuse, yet seemingly harmless, cost savings for taxpayers to be disingenuous, bordering on insane.

If you value the basic services our communities depend on for a decent quality of life, you’ll do what you can to ensure these initiatives go nowhere.

Doing Nothing Does Something

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Doing nothing does something

By Christian Piatt

 

I picked up a book recently by Walter Wink, one of my preferred theologians when it comes to putting action behind the rhetoric of faith. I have yet to read anything by Wink that has not rocked my world and caused me to reevaluate pretty much everything from my beliefs to the way I express them in daily life.

 

His book, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, was no exception.

 

Deceptively small at a compact 64 pages, every paragraph presents a compelling challenge not only to many common takes on Jesus’ approach to authority, but also to anyone who claims to be a champion of the oppressed, marginalized and neglected.

 

First, Wink quickly goes about dismantling the myth that Jesus was a pacifist. Far from it, actually. Things like turning the other cheek and walking the second mile, in the context of Wink’s nonviolent activist engagement, take on unexpected power, much like a black belt in aikido uses the energy of his attacker to overthrow them.

 

For example, it was legal in the Roman Empire for occupying centurions to force locals to carry their packs up to one mile along the road, but no further. Though taking the soldier’s pack a second mile might seem a meek and nice thing to do, he argues it’s actually a nonviolent act of insurrection. The soldier actually could be jailed or otherwise punished for violating the law banning exploitation of the local people, but how ridiculous does he end up looking, begging for his pack back from a lowly peasant? And if you insist on carrying the burden further, he also runs the risk of appearing weak, empowering yourself with the very weight he once placed upon you as a symbol of his power and authority.

 

The great deception, says Wink, is that we Western-minded folks have bought the idea that we have two choices when faced with violence, injustice or oppression: fight back in kind or do nothing. What is required, he says, is a third option, as modeled by Jesus, one that too often Christians and other people of faith mistake as a call for non-involvement.

 

As Wink claims, doing nothing in response to injustice is to implicitly support the violence already being done.

 

Such creative nonviolent activism is certainly not limited to Christianity, either. Though Martin Luther King is the greatest modern example of this kind of engagement for Christians, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and others have practiced such world-changing commitment to nonviolence over the centuries.

 

Wink also effectively dispels the myth that violence, in any instance, has ever been a more effective tool than a nonviolent response. Ultimately more blood is shed and more people die, even if it’s in our nature to want an eye for an eye.

 

Sound absurd? Hard to imagine? Wink expects that. As he points out, many of us can’t think of the way he understands the teaching and life of Jesus as really a possibility for us. But ultimately, it depends on how you measure success. If we consider the end of Jesus’ ministry to be his moment of crucifixion, alone, vulnerable and betrayed by those he continued to love, then his life’s mission was a failure.

 

If, however, we believe that one life – perhaps even our own – is worth giving up for a change that brings hope to thousands or millions of others, many of whom we may never meet, then Jesus’ third way begins to look like a path worth exploring.

Vehicular Manslaughter=$100 Traffic Ticket: Follow-up story

Monday, July 19th, 2010

NewSpin
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

A couple of months ago I wrote about an investigation I’d done on a case in which Betty Joyce Kuykendall ran a stop sign, collided with a car, and crash that led to the death of the male driver in the other car.

Because of the timing of various steps of the investigation, the only charge brought against Kuykendall was a stop-sign violation, for which she promptly paid a $100 fine. (See the NewSpin column in the May 20 P.U.L/P., online at www.pueblopulp.com, for more about the case).

One reason the case for vehicular manslaughter or any other criminal charges could not be brought against Kuykendall was because St. Mary-Corwin hospital reported that all injuries related to the accident were not serious, even though they ultimately led to William Dorough’s death.

So I wrote to District Attorney Bill Thiebaut, asking whether or not the hospital could be held legally responsible for the death in any way. The following includes excerpts from his response:

“The case is closed,” writes Thiebaut. “The hospital or its medical staff will not be charged. However, a civil action may be filed against the hospital or its medical staff, or other persons or entities.”

“It has been said: There is no crime, there is no punishment, without law (Nullen crimen, nulla poena, sine lege).

“Every crime involves a wrongful act (actus reus) specifically prohibited by the criminal law. In most cases, the law requires that the wrongful act be accompanied by criminal intent (mens rea).

“The actus reus may take the form of an omission or failure to perform an act obliged by law, but the act or duty to act must be specifically required by law; it must have been possible for the person to have performed, and, in some cases, the person must have been aware of his duty to act.

“The mens rea or culpable state of mind accompanying the actus reus can include criminal negligence …. This state of mind is generally sufficient only where there is a conscious disregard of a substantial risk of which a reasonable man would have been aware.

“Finally, there must be a causal relationship between the act and the harm or loss suffered. The act must be both actually and legally the cause of the harm. Actual causation can use the ‘but-for’ test. In other words, would the harm have occurred whether or not the accused had acted? The legal causation is determined by a number of tests. For example, the cause must have played a substantial factor in bringing about the results.”

Within these legal limits, the hospital has not been found to be legally liable for the death. Did they screw up? It seems so, but not with any intent to do harm as outlined above. Did the accident, caused by Kuykendall, lead to Dorough’s death? Most everyone involved seems to be in agreement that it did. However, because of double jeopardy, and since Kuykendall paid the fine for the initial ticket for running the stop sign before charges could be adjusted, she can’t be charged for anything else related to the incident.

So what recourse, if any, does Dorough’s family have?

“A civil wrong…is dealt with under different standards” explains Thiebaut, “and seeks to make whole the injured or aggrieved party through appropriate remedies, including money damages.”

In short, the family can sue everyone from the hospital to Kuykendall herself, provided they have the motivation and resources to do so. And of course, even if they win a civil case (or cases), appeals can drag on for years, costing tens of thousands of dollars in court costs and lawyer fees.

Ultimately, nothing will bring William Dorough back. He’s gone, and no doubt, Ms. Kuykendall grieves the accidental death along with Dorough’s family. Justice, whether it takes the form of civil damages or jail time, are cold comfort for those who have lost someone they love.

Little, if any, legal recourse can bring families the peace and resolution that they seek in such cases. However, when left with nothing other than personal civil suits to seek restitution or some sense of justice, it’s a symptom of a legal system that has failed its people.

It’s Not About You

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

It’s not about you
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

My wife, Amy, and I were driving southbound on Interstate 25 recently when a figure ran across the road, right at the edge of one of the overpasses near downtown Pueblo. Though my first instinct was to slam on the brakes, I slowed down enough to notice it was a police officer whose car was parked on the other side of the highway.

At first, we assumed he was in pursuit of a bad guy, but then Amy notice a little boy, no more than four years old, standing on the outside of the guardrail of the bridge. The point on the overpass where he was had to be at least thirty feet above ground; more than enough to inflict serious – if not fatal – damage if he fell.

The boy wandered along the four-inch ledge, which was the only thing between him and possible death, all the while apparently oblivious to the danger he was in. My first thought was, my God, this kid is going to die.

The officer who ran out into the highway traffic, however, was set on a different outcome to the story. Without regard for his own safety, he sprinted across the lanes of oncoming traffic toward the child, leaning over the guardrail and scooping the boy up tightly in his arms.

I didn’t notice any mention of the officer’s act of bravery in the paper or on the news in the coming days, and of course, that’s not why he did what he did. But for all of the bad press – some well-deserved – that officers of the law get, this guy on this particular day put the life of someone else before his own and did something truly heroic.

So what does this have to do with religion or faith? After all, I have no idea if the officer was a Christian, Pagan, Atheist or whatever. For me, the lesson is that, although organized religion often sets out to impart moral lessons to the greater culture, sometimes there are acts of humanity all around us that could teach religion a thing or two about better living into their claimed missions.

It’s no headline-worthy news these days that many institutions of faith are struggling to keep their doors open. Though at one time, churches, mosques or synagogues may have been the social hubs of their communities, a more distributed, mobile and, frankly, preoccupied American culture finds their sense of community elsewhere, more often than not.

In response, some faith communities have resorted to trying harder to reflect the culture around them, installing coffee houses in their buildings, adding more entertaining activities to their roster of programs, and sometimes even telling people what they want to hear, whether it’s theologically well-founded or not.

Enter phenomena like the best-selling book, The Secret, gospel distortions focusing on prosperity and other “God wants you to be rich” theologies. Implicitly, and in some cases, explicitly, the message becomes, “yes, it really is all about you.”

The problem is, it’s not all about you.

We live in a consumer-driven economy that relies on excess spending on things we can’t afford, let alone need, to fuel the fiscal engine. And now more than ever, targeted media marketing can tell you exactly what you want to hear, and practically custom-design products and services that will not only free you of a few bucks, but will also help confirm the sneaking suspicion that you are, in fact, at the center of the universe.

At its best, faith communities work against such fallacies, helping people get over themselves, deconstructing the narcissism that causes us too often to turn in on our own world rather than noticing that there’s a whole planet of other people out there.

Every major world religion has stories in its history of its leaders getting beyond the trappings of “self” to a more enlightened, liberated and compassionate worldview. Unfortunately sometimes we within the institutions of religion grasp desperately at the next new thing to try and maintain the legacies we’ve inherited from previous generations.

One of my favorite sayings is that true faith means planting trees under whose shade you’ll never sit. But that’s an uncomfortable, sometimes difficult place to be. It’s counter-cultural to work without expectation of reward in kind, and to labor harder for the welfare of others than for our own comfort.

For that one officer in a moment of pure instinct, I saw through a window to the best of what humanity can be. Now, if we can only get the rest of our faith communities to see through that same window, we might actually change the world in ways far greater than we imagine when worried so much about our own survival.

Cesar Chavez: Pueblo Charter School on the Cliff?

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

NewSpin
by Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

It seemed, while Cesar Chavez and its affiliates remained in the stratosphere with remarkable results on standardized tests, the administration was untouchable. Though criticized for such unorthodox practices as offering gift cards to new students, and as rumors of test tampering and misogynist treatment of staff bubbled to the surface, it was hard nonetheless to argue with the results Dr. Lawrence Hernandez and company were yielding.

It seems the power went to his head, though.

In a recent press release from the Colorado Department of Education’s communications office, Commissioner of Education Dwight D. Jones “expressed deep concern about the network’s egregious financial practices and dubious leadership” after a formal review of the Cesar Chavez School Network’s organizational and financial systems.

“The report makes clear that the leadership of the network prioritized its needs over the students and disregarded both basic business practices and common sense,” says Jones. “The leaders of Cesar Chavez School Network squandered taxpayer money, ignored basic legal requirements, over-compensated senior staff, engaged in nepotism and failed to provide accountability over the resources entrusted to them. The results demand swift action.”

“I fully encourage Pueblo City Schools to use this analysis in any way it sees fit to hold Cesar Chavez School Network accountable,” says Jones. “Taxpayers, teachers and parents across Colorado will find that reading the report is a deeply troubling experience on many levels. I anticipate that Pueblo City Schools, the authorizers of the original charters, will be even more disturbed.”

Pueblo City Schools’ own news release echoed the scathing criticism from the CDE, detailing “nearly 40 separate findings of fact that support misappropriation and mismanagement of funds and resources at CCA schools primarily by the three principal staff members: Lawrence Hernandez, CEO; his wife Annette Hernandez, COO; and Jason Guerrero, CFO. It also finds that some of the Board of Directors at CCA and DHPH were complicit in conflicts of interest that directly benefited them financially.”

“’The apparent magnitude of egregious misappropriation and mismanagement of the public’s money is shocking,” said Stephanie Garcia, president of the board for Pueblo City Schools, per the release. “’This pervasive and perpetuated abuse of taxpayer funding at the hands of the founders of the CCA schools, explains their years of aggressive and antagonistic efforts to keep Pueblo City Schools and other authorizing agencies from actually seeing what was going on.

“’As the authorizer of the charters for these schools, we take the suggestions of Commissioner Dwight Jones very seriously and will be looking at our options very closely. We will be examining all legal remedies at our disposal to address the inappropriate actions of those responsible for this obscene abuse of tax payer monies.’”

Following these damning statements, I followed up with Ms. Garcia with the questions below, followed by her responses.

Is the district pressing any charges against CCA/DHPH staff? If so, who and what charges? And if not, why?

The district does not have the authority to press charges against CCA/DHPH. We have however contacted the local district attorney, the Internal Revenue Service and the Attorney General’s office. They are the entities that will determine if charges are in order.

Have any civil suits been considered, and again, if so, against who, for how much and on what grounds?

CCA/DHPH has 11 current civil suits pending. They are being sued by former CEO Lawrence Hernandez. I understand the suits are about alleged wrongful termination and acts of discrimination.

How, if at all, do you feel this experience has changed the district’s outlook on Charter schools?

The district has been very pleased with our relationship with our other Charter Schools. YAFA and PSAS have always responded to the district’s requests for information regarding governance, finances and instruction. I believe the audit results clearly uncovered the real reasons why CCA and DHPH continually challenged our request for this information.

I do believe that the Board of Education will have clear qualifications and standards written into future contracts with any new charter and also when we renew existing charters. I believe this will affect charter contracts for all schools across Colorado, if not the Country. There has also been new legislation presented this year that would also tighten controls over Charter conduct.

What do you expect will change about CCA/DHPH governance moving forward?

Clearly, governance will have to change and accountability will need to be in place. That being said, we are still not certain if the two schools are recognized as being nonprofit entities. They were not able to produce their 2008 or 2009 990 (IRS revenue document) or other evidence that they are still recognized by the IRS. Also, given the audit results, if they have not already lost their nonprofit status, they may.

Beyond the over 15 million dollars in bond debt and lack of reserve as required by the State, tax payers may also be owed repayment of other State and federal funds that were clearly misspent. The Board is still meeting with local State and Federal law enforcement entities and representatives with the Colorado Department of Education.

At this point, we do not know if the situation is beyond repair regardless of new leadership.

Finally, I asked District Attorney Bill Thiebaut if they were considering any charges of their own, especially considering the District’s hands were effectively tied with regard pressing legal charges.

“In addition to receiving a copy of the final report (audit) presented to the Colorado Department of Education by MGT of America, Inc.,” says Thiebaut, “over several months we have received voluminous information from a variety of citizens regarding the operation of the Cesar Chavez School Network. Our office has been in communication with, among others, the Attorney General’s Office as well as School District 60 officials (Pueblo City Schools) regarding this information.

“Our staff is reviewing this information,” continues Thiebaut. “For now, that is all I am at liberty to say.”

A Walk Around the World

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

(Originally printed in PULP)

One of my biggest issues with Western religious groups is how we tend to treat the human body. Aside from too often condemning our bodies as inherently dirty or sinful, we also tend to over-indulge them when it comes to food, to say the least. We too rarely speak of the spiritual importance of other self-care practices such as exercise.

Ideally, we wouldn’t have to preach about it, but rather would live as examples to our communities. But more often than not, it seems like the religious leaders who are set apart are some of the worst offenders when it comes to self-care, or lack of it.

This isn’t the case in all religious circles, however. For example, Yoga is a spiritual practice that emphasizes physical and spiritual wellness, and celebrates balance, both figuratively and literally. When I was not active in organized religion through much of my twenties, I found both the sense of community and discipline I longed for in martial arts. I was particularly drawn to Shaolin boxing, which was touted as the most ancient martial art, crafted by monks both as a spiritual practice and a method of defense.

So, although there are exceptions, it seems that religions originating from Asian cultures generally tend to get the importance of physical discipline and self-care, better than we westerners do. So, it was no great surprise when my latest spiritual inspiration was a Buddhist monk.

Endo Mitsunaga, a Japanese Zen Buddhist, is only the 13th monk since World War II to earn the honor of daiajari for completing an arduous pilgrimage. A resident monk of the Enryaku-ji temple on Mt. Hiei, near Kyoto, Mitsunaga completed a 26-mile trek in a single day through the mountains, marking the journey with 260 prayers along the way.

To complete such a task in itself is impressive, walking the equivalent of a marathon on the side of a mountain, but the 34-year-old monk has done the same walk a thousand times in the past seven years. He does the circuit, which brings him back to the monastery at its end, in strings of 100 or 200 days in a row, while wearing sandals hand-woven from grass.

By completing this pilgrimage, he has walked the equivalent of the distance around the planet Earth.

For most of us, this regimen would be all-consuming in itself, but he does this in his “free time,” since he’s also charged with taking care of the other monks in the monastery seven days a week. His daily tasks take up about 80-plus hours a week, so he wakes up at 12:30 in the morning to begin his walk, finishing by 8 a.m. so he can work until after prayers at 8 p.m., sleep for four hours and get up to do it all over again.

Some might see the monastic life as selfish, not really offering anything to the world by walking in circles day after day around a mountain. But to me, such commitment, focus and self-discipline reveal how much we’re truly capable of as human beings. We tend to fall back on the “my life is already too crazy” argument for not praying, serving others or even caring for ourselves, but clearly, it’s more a matter of priorities than a matter of ability.

It’s unfortunate that we have so few examples of sacrificial discipline in Western culture to help illuminate a path by which we might better ourselves. But at least, from somewhere on a mountaintop halfway around the globe, a monk’s quiet footsteps are heard half a world away.

I’m not likely to join a monastery or walk around 26,000 miles in sandals any time soon, but Endo Mitsunaga serves as a heartening and challenging example that, given the will to do so, I can always do at least a little bit more.

Priests and Abuse: Misplaced Anger?

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

(Originally published in PULP)

It seems almost cliché to write about religious sexual abuse scandals in a faith-oriented column, but sometimes news stories simply demand a response.

First of all, I want to make clear that, as a leader in a faith community, I’m personally both saddened and outraged every time I hear about another innocent soul falling victim to a sexual predator who uses the context of the ministry to cloak themselves in protective immunity. With every new revelation of such abuses, my question isn’t why these predators aren’t defrocked; it’s why they’re not sitting in a cell somewhere.

That said, I think some of us are focusing our righteous anger in the wrong direction. Yes, priests and other religious leaders who exploit their position to take advantage of anyone in their congregation, be they of age or not, have no business in ministry. And yes, those in positions of greater power who knowingly obfuscate the scale of the problem, making it even worse by moving guilty priests around, should also be removed. But simply to direct our ill feelings toward these individuals is to ignore the deeper, more disturbing reality.

By its very nature, church leadership roles present extraordinary opportunities for abuse. Few other jobs offer such a combination of power, lack of accountability and social pressure to present oneself a certain way. People trust ministers – or at least have done so historically – because of their positions. It’s assumed that it takes a special kind of person to accept a call to act as a servant of a church and its followers.

The problem is that, although this is generally true, it also is an imperfect system. True, some potential predators see ministry as a system waiting to be taken advantage of, but more often than not, I am of the opinion that the systems of religion themselves are guilty of creating these monsters, and not just letting them slip through the cracks.

Imagine being told that, for the rest of your life, people will look at you as if you’re set apart, different. In some ways, they will hold an unnatural admiration for you, but this same perception also will distance you from the rest of the culture. Add to this that, in some cases, you’re expected never to act on your natural sexual impulses, or even the innate craving for emotional and physical intimacy, all sexual acts aside.

Then you’re given a uniform and are afforded authority over people that, by its very nature, places them in a vulnerable state, while also being drawn to you. And though it’s assumed you’re carrying out the duties assigned to you by the higher authorities from day to day, the level of oversight generally doesn’t match up with the level of responsibility you have.

We’ve all heard the stories about how lots of men “turn gay” when sent to prison for long periods of time. It’s not that these guys actually are suddenly more attracted to men than women, but for lack of a woman, a guy will have to do. This is not uncommon throughout the animal kingdom, with same-sex animals pairing off when it’s the only option.

So is it that these priests who molest boys are actually gay? Some may be, and may likely aren’t, in the sense that a homosexual act does not a gay person make. But the system itself places young boys in the trust of male priests all the time, and lo and behold, the combination of personal repression and otherworldly expectations find an outlet, though in a chilling and violent way.

An immediate reaction to such moral tragedies is to clamp down, enacting “zero tolerance” policies and throwing the so-called book at perpetrators. And although such action might make us all feel better for the moment, it’s not likely to change the behavior of a person who is already risking everything they have in the world for what amounts to a licentious thrill.

I believe that the biggest problem is the repression. When we ask people to be something they’re not by nature, those repressed dimensions find a way of seeping through the tiniest of cracks. And when they do, it’s usually not pretty. If we were actually more open about allowing our spiritual leaders to accept that their sexuality is actually a beloved gift from God rather than a dirty thing to be despised, it would go a long way toward allowing them to be what they actually are: human beings.

Not only that, but it also would give those followers within the church permission to accept as much about themselves, hopefully coming to realize that healthy sexuality expressed in mutually consenting relationships is as God meant it to be. Otherwise, none of us would be here!

From the first stories in the Bible, we’re wrongly taught to hate our bodies and to understand our sexuality as detestable and wrong. But as I’ve heard it said many times before, how’s that working out for you?

Couldn’t it be that reading stories like those about Adam and Eve could tell us why we tend to view our bodies with shame, rather than taking from it that we should hate our physical selves? Couldn’t it be that, if we are indeed created in the image of a Creator, our impulses and urges are supposed to be there, to be used and expressed in wonderfully creative ways?

If we can learn anything from history it’s that nature wins over the will of humanity every time. We may like to think that having the appearance of control over our sexuality makes us more highly evolved, or even somehow closer to God. Ironically, it’s those same God-given impulses that, when repressed find other ways into the light.

The problem is that, by then, it’s too late, and the shame continues.