Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Spirit of Justice

I had an opportunity to offer the invocation at the beginning of a vigil at the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 9, 2012, marking the first anniversary of the passage of the bill that severely limited the collective bargaining rights of public employees. The vigil was organized by We Are Wisconsin. About 250 people gathered on the Capitol steps at the State Street entrance, many of them holding battery-run candles glowing in the darkness. Here's a link to a video.

How many were here last February as this Wisconsin uprising began?

How many were here last March as the crowds grew and the demands for justice grew louder?

When you were here, could you feel a kind of spirit moving through these crowds, a spirit that took us out of our own little worlds and connected us to something much bigger?

Could you feel a spirit of community?
Could you feel a spirit of justice?

For those of us in faith traditions, there was a bit of God in those spirits.

Now let me ask you something else?

Remember the many groups that have come together here seeking justice?

The firefighters and the farmers?
The teachers and the prison guards?
The police officers and the students?
The retirees and the nurses?

The list goes on and on.

In the midst of all those groups at each of the rallies last year were people from many of the different faith traditions that make up the spiritual quilt of Wisconsin.

Many of us carried this sign, a sign that says “All religions believe in justice.”

It’s a theme that runs through the Hebrew scriptures and it's a theme that runs through the words of Jesus. It’s part of a core Muslim pillar of sharing wealth. It’s within the Buddhist concept of compassion.

For those like me who are in the Christian tradition, this is a season we call Lent, 40 days devoted to thinking about how we can better live out what we believe before we celebrate the hope that comes with Easter. For some, it is a time of fasting, of giving things up.

But it’s also a time to remember the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah – the very prophet Jesus quoted when he defined his mission as bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed.

Isaiah is channeling God in this passage:

 "This is the kind of fast day I'm after:
   to break the chains of injustice,
   to get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
   to free the oppressed, to cancel debts.

"If you get rid of unfair practices,
  if you quit blaming victims,
  if you quit gossiping about other people's sins,
  if you are generous with the hungry
  and if start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
then your lives will begin to glow in the darkness.

“You'll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again.”

We’ve been through a very tough 12 months in Wisconsin,
a year when the rights of workers have been diminished,
the rights of voters have been restricted,
the needs of the poor have been trampled.

We’ve been through a year of blaming victims
and a lack of generosity of spirit or of money.
We have seen the fabric of our Wisconsin community frayed around the edges.

So if you are so inclined, would you join your voices with me in this prayer? Could you answer each line with “Let the light of justice glow in the darkness.”

Divine Spirit, we call you by many names, but we join together in seeking your presence among us this evening.
“Let the light of justice glow in the darkness.”

We gather here holding in our hearts those who have suffered so much during the past year, those whose incomes were diminished, whose jobs were eliminated, whose future is more uncertain.
“Let the light of justice glow in the darkness.”

We gather here holding in our hearts those who have felt the sting of animosity from elected leaders, from amplified voices, from fellow citizens.
“Let the light of justice glow in the darkness.”

We gather here holding in our hearts the pain of friendships shattered, families divided, close bonds broken in the midst of the turmoil of this past year.
“Let the light of justice glow in the darkness.”

And we gather here holding in our hearts hope for a better future, a place where everyone’s labor will be honored and rewarded, where everyone’s place as a citizen will be respected and protected, where no one will lack a place to sleep or a meal to eat or the medical care they need.
“Let the light of justice glow in the darkness.”

Give us the wisdom and the courage to restore what has been ruined,
to rebuild and to renovate our democracy,
to make the community livable again.
“Let the light of justice glow in the darkness.”

Say it again.
“Let the light of justice glow in the darkness.”

Say it again.
“Let the light of justice glow in the darkness.”

May it be so.

NCEW makes me a Life Member

The National Conference of Editorial Writers, a group I have been part of since 1984 and that I served as president in 2002, this year honored me with a Life Membership. It practical terms, it means I don't have to pay fees for future conventions. But what is more important is the recognition from my friends and colleagues in the opinion-writing world of journalism.

This text is posted on the NCEW web site, but it is in the members-only section, so I am posting it here. Below the text is my response. Thanks to all who made this possible.

From the NCEW Convention, Sept. 17, 2011, in Indianapolis, IN.

This year’s honoree as an NCEW Life Member is gentle man, but also a man with firm, well-grounded convictions he never shies from defending. During his fourteen years as an opinion writer, he wrote with style and argued with substance. His soft spoken approach belies the intensity of his convictions.

He well understands that a key role for opinion writers is to help those he serves to understand and deal with the complexities life presents. His principled approach to his chosen profession made him a valuable guide and his graceful style fortified with persuasive substance made him an effective and respected writer and editor.

His understanding of and loyalty to his home state and its capital was at the heart of his long and productive career.

But his leadership was not confined by the Wisconsin state borders. He brought his skills to the NCEW as a committee member, board member, Foundation trustee and, ultimately, as president. During his service on the NCEW board and during the years he held the ladder offices leading to his presidency, he was always the voice of reason, steadiness and creativity. He cares deeply about our profession and about how NCEW can make its members better at their craft.

His leadership leading up to and during NCEW’s management changes set him apart. He was sensitive to the needs of all involved and yet deeply committed to the need for NCEW to move to a new level of operation. His skill and grace were nowhere more apparent than during that difficult transition.

When he decided to shift his devotion to "speak truth to power" in a different venue as a minister of his faith, a newspaper colleague wrote that he was "one of those men who actually practice what they preach." His NCEW colleagues know the truth of that.

Therefore to Phil Haslanger, with appreciation and deep and great affection, NCEW renders its most significant honor, Life Membership, for all that he has done and all that he will continue to do.

I could not be at the convention to receive the award, so Neil Heinen of WISC-TV in Madison arranged for me to do a video response. Here's what I said:

Why, oh why, you might ask, when I should be with you in Indianapolis to be totally surprised at this wonderful award am I instead sitting in Neil Heinen’s TV studio talking to you in disembodied form?

While you are letting that dinner settle in and awaiting what I know will be a delightful presentation by Joel Pett, I am on an airplane somewhere between North Carolina and Wisconsin. I’m now on the board for the Religion News Service, run by the Religion Newswriters Association, and that meeting is still going on. I also need to be back for that church thing I do on Sunday mornings where we have some special things happening tomorrow.

I’m really sorry not to be with you tonight, especially when I get this incredible honor from my friends and colleagues at NCEW. I know how significant this award is – not because I get a price break on future conventions (that’s nice, of course) but because it represents a recognition by some of the most important people in my professional life of my connection to this amazing organization.

Since I joined NCEW in 1984, it has been the primary journalism organization that has nourished me professionally. It was an NCEW seminar in San Antonio in 1995 that introduced me to the possibilities of using the Internet as a new way of extending the opinion role of journalism. The insights I gained there led me to be part of the team that moved my own paper in Madison, The Capital Times, into what we then called cyberspace. That experience continues to enrich my work in connecting people, whether through journalism or the church world I now inhabit.

It was through NCEW that I had the chance to be part of a group having lunch with Ronald Reagan at the White House, with Kofi Annan at the United Nations, to go deep inside Cheyenne Mountain where the nation’s air defense system was headquartered and to share a seat on the King Kong ride at Universal Studios with a couple of Pulitzer Prize winners. There is no end to NCEW convention stories, of course, but you can hear some of those from the folks you are sitting with tonight.

Mostly, I just want to say thanks for this honor, thanks for all NCEW has done for me professionally and personally over the years, for the many friendships that have grown out of this organization. I’m glad that over the years, I could play a role in helping lead it through some times of transition. My best wishes to all of you as you navigate the choppy waters of journalism in 2011 and help create a future where informed opinion can emerge from the cacophony of public life to strengthen our democracy.