Thursday, November 22, 2012

Saints & Citizens

In Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer worries that American society is losing the virtues, the basic qualities of character, esential to living as a free society. The trainers at my community organizing training last week expressed the same concern. Palmer and they both saw the decline of “civic life” as the problem.

By “civic life,” they mean the intermediate institutions that stand between the family and the massive power of the market and government. Take for example the influence of marketing and media on children and youth. Those are powerful rivals to the authority of parents.

Since 1973, the influence of the market and government has grown by leaps and bounds while the influence of civic institutions has declined. Civic institutions include schools, service clubs, churches, and others – think of 4H, the Grange, VFW, etc. Civic institutions buffer the family from all sorts of destructive economic and social pressures. And they do something more: they are the context in which we learn and cultivate the virtues essential to life in a free society.

This is not a new or novel idea. Benjamin Franklin wrote in his essay “On The Necessitie Of A Publique Religion” that a republic is possible only if churches instill virtues in people that insure that most of us will behave well most of the time without the watchful eye and heavy hand of a totalitarian state. From the founding fathers through sociologists like Robert Bellah and theologians like Stanley Hauerwas in our time, we have known that living together in freedom requires capacities for empathy, restraint, compromise, etc. We learn those virtues in civic institutions, most particularly, churches.

The Epistles are first and foremost guides to how to be a community. They are full of teachings about the virtues we have to master in order to be the Body of Christ – which coincide with the qualities of character essential to life in a free society. If the church is to do its job of forming saints and citizens, we have to get intentional again about teaching people how to deal with each other.

For example, as I write this article, Congress is looking for a way to steer the budget away from the fiscal cliff. Whether this needs doing is beyond debate. Whether it is important is beyond debate. The only argument is over whether failure to avoid the fiscal cliff will be a disaster or just really, really bad. The only way to save the economy from this mishap is compromise. But among the constituents of the Congress only 46% of one party and 53% of the other support any kind of compromise. A substantial percentage of our population is bullheaded to the extent of being self-destructive. We complain about Congress but they merely reflect the populace. We get the government we deserve.

The business of the church is not to teach political or economic ideologies, but it is our job to teach wisdom, common sense, empathy, and forbearance that enable people of good faith to bridge their differences.

I am particularly impressed by Parker Palmer’s Five Habits of the Heart (derived from Quaker Spirituality) that he says are necessary to democracy:

                 1. An understanding that we are all in this together
                 2. An appreciation of otherness
                 3. An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways
                 4. A sense of personal voice and agency
                  5. A capacity to create community

The practices of story-telling and identifying our deep self interests (things we want and need that go deeper than money, power, and prestige) and finding ways to meet those needs for both sides – all part and parcel of community organizing – are also crucial to being church and being a democracy.

One of our priests just finished training in conflict resolution with the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. I have not had this experience yet. but from what I have read and heard, it may be another rich source for helping us be the kind of community Paul urged us to be in all his letter, especially 1st Corinthians.

Often church folks do not behave toward one another with the kind of wisdom, patience, and kindness one would expect of Christians. If we cannot behave virtuously in church, what can we expect of human behavior in the rough and tumble world of politics? I hope in the coming decade or so we will renew our efforts to teach and practice relational skills, that we will grow stronger in the capacities we need in order to be good citizens and good church people, and that we will cultivate the strengths we need if we are going to get on with God’mission.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


         After a church-sponsored presentation here on child sex trafficking last Spring, one person in the audience asked the panel, “What can we do about this?” The panelist answered, “Just be aware.”

         That doesn’t help. Telling us the world is a mess and there’s nothing we can do about it doesn’t help. But there are things we can do about it.

         Nevadans for the Common Good has already been instrumental in combatting child sex trafficking as we have worked with schools, law enforcement, and social services. We are positioning ourselves to do a great deal more. Human trafficking is a large, complex problem, a tangled evil. There is not a single silver bullet solution. We cannot solve this problem through legislation alone. But we cannot effectively combat it without legislation. 

        We have advocated for legislative reforms in the past. We have won some and lost some. But now we have the Big Battle. Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto will present an Omnibus Human Trafficking Bill (currently, BDR 403) to the next legislative session.

         Here’s what that Bill will do:
1.   Broaden the definition of the criminal conduct to include all aspects of pimp activity – recruiting, harboring, soliciting, etc. At present many aspects of the pimping process are not criminal. This bill will allow proof of any one aspect of the process to result in a conviction.
2.   Remove the violence requirement for those who traffic children. While violence and coercion would still be an element in the charge of trafficking adults, children are more likely to be enticed and manipulated into prostitution. This statute would remove the violence requirement in cases against child sex traffickers.
3.   For each of the crimes covered, the penalties would be increased by one felony level. In the case of a child sex trafficker, the penalty would go from 1-5 years with the possibility (in fact the likelihood) of probation to 3-20 years with no probation.
4.   The law would apply criminal penalties to Johns (customers) so as to attack the problem from the demand side.
5.   Provide specific authorization of wiretaps based on probable cause to suspect human trafficking is being conducted via telephone.
6.   Apply racketeering, conspiracy, and gang enhancement penalties to human trafficking.
7.   Add human traffickers to the sex offender registry. (In my opinion, this is one of the most important and potentially effective parts of this bill in actually preventing human trafficking of children.)
8.   Strengthen the existing (new) provisions allowing law enforcement to seize the trafficker’s assets that are the fruits of illegal activities.
9.   Use the proceeds from seized assets to provide restitution to the victims of human trafficking.
10.       Create a civil cause of action so that a victim of human trafficking can sue the trafficker for money damages.
11.       Give the state the right to a preliminary hearing. This can preserve the testimony of trafficking victims who often disappear or become unavailable before trial resulting in dismissal of the charges.
12.       Extend the statute of limitations on rape charges arising out of child sex trafficking.

This is not about the legalized and regulated prostitution in some rural Nevada counties. There are arguments for and against that. But this legislation is about a very different situation. This is about the coercion of adults and the manipulation of children into the illegal sex trade.

         Our task now is to persuade legislators to pass this Bill. Do you think it is a slam-dunk? Think again. Bills increasing the penalties for child sex trafficking have repeatedly been defeated in our State Assembly. They don’t even make it out of committee. Human trafficking is a highly lucrative business. Passing this legislation will require a concerted effort by the faith community.

         So, let’s get organized! Nevadans for the Common Good will have a strategy session on how we can pass this bill:
                                    Thursday, Nov. 29
                                    7 p.m.
                                    Zion United Methodist Church
                                    2108 Revere St.
                                    North Las Vegas
We need 5 or 6 people from each Episcopal Church (2 or 3 from the smaller ones), and each Church, Synagogue, Mosque, or non-profit organization that is working with Nevadans for the Common Good.

         This Bill will not solve the problem. But it is a huge first step. See you at Zion UMC on Nov. 29.