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John Buchanan - A Sense of the Green

From: Chautauqua Institution
Series: Department of Religion Interfaith Lecture Series
Length: 57:59

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An election year provides a compelling opportunity for assessing issues that govern the contexts and the quality of life for citizens both for now and for the generations to come – a time for discerning what is most important for the common good of all. In this week we will hear from multiple voices committed to raising awareness of current needs and hope-filled possibilities for shaping the future. Read the full description.

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Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

The Rev. John Buchanan closed the Week Two religious Interfaith Lecture Series themed “2012: What’s at Stake for the Common Good” with a lecture titled “A Sense of the Green.”

Buchanan is the editor and publisher of The Christian Century magazine. He is a Presbyterian pastor and was the moderator of the 208th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.

In his lecture, Buchanan said the provision of welfare has historically been a tradition of both the United States and most religions. In a time when American society is increasingly divided by both politics and faith, it is imperative that each citizen remember his or her responsibility lies in ensuring the general welfare and common good.

Buchanan opened his lecture with a story about a trip through the jury duty selection process in Cook County, Ill. Cook County has its fair share of notoriety, infamous for political corruption, greed and a low-ranking baseball team.

“But we do jury duty right,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan said he first arrived at the jury duty selection process irritated and complaining; but he said it soon became a powerful experience. In the room while waiting to be interviewed, Buchanan spoke with the others who had been called on that day. He realized the group was a diverse and vibrant cross-section of the city’s population. Buchanan said he was amazed by the fact that all of those people, with busy, hectic lives were brought in to participate in the process of ensuring that one person had a fair, just trial.

“I was moved by what it said about the inherent value of this young life, this incredible investment of time and energy and resources to assure that one of us, indeed one that didn’t seem to have much going for him, was not finally a discard, a throwaway,” Buchanan said.

“There is in this nation, from the very beginning and in its modern complexity, a commitment to the general welfare, the common good,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan refers to that innate commitment to the common good and general welfare as “a sense of the green.” The term green references the central green of old New England towns, he said. The green was a place that was open to all members of the community; it symbolized the shared common spirit of the town.

“An eloquent symbol that the town, the community, exists not only for the benefit of its individual citizens but for the general welfare which each and everyone has responsibility,” Buchanan said.

The sentiment of civic and governmental responsibility for the common good and general welfare can be found within the lines of the U.S. Constitution, Buchanan said. The preamble of the Constitution begins, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare.” In that line, in addition to laying out the common government responsibilities, of justice and defense, the writers of the constitution also demonstrated that general welfare of citizens was and still is tantamount, Buchanan said.

“There is here a community that is diminished and injured whenever any of its citizens are diminished or injured,” he said.

When including the general welfare as a goal in the preamble to their prescription for creating a “more perfect union,” the Founding Fathers were tapping into certain ideas related in religious texts centuries earlier, Buchanan said.

Approximately, eight centuries Before Common Era, a Hebrew prophet named Amos wrote, “I hate, I despise your religious festivals. Your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. I will have no regard for them, away with the noise of your songs, but let justice roll down like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream,” Buchanan said.

Later in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Prophet Micah wrote, “What does the Lord require of you but to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God?”

The first words that Jesus Christ is recorded as saying were words from the Prophet Isaiah, Buchanan said. In the passage, it is said that the prophet was sent to bear good news, to release captives, give sight to the blind and free the oppressed.

“This is how we’re supposed to be living together in community, caring for one another, paying particular attention to those on the margins, the weakest, the most vulnerable,” Buchanan said.

“Isn’t it strange, I’ve often thought, how dismissively we use the word ‘welfare’? In fact, it’s popular politically to criticize welfare,” Buchanan said.

As the term and concept of welfare has become less popular, a pervasive narcissism has swept through in its place. More often, people are only looking out for themselves. Issues like education are considered less equitably.

“It’s hard not to come to that conclusion when in my community we invest twice as much in the education of a child whose family lives in Lake Forest than we do in a child born in one of Chicago’s housing authority’s high-rises,” Buchanan said.

Some scholars have blamed divided U.S. society on the influence of religion. Others argue that it can both unite and divide. The uproar of certain religious leaders about the building of the “ground zero mosque” and the instance when a Baptist pastor burned the Quran are two recent occasions that exhibited religion’s divisiveness.

“Religion has done its share of dividing us,” Buchanan said. But religion and the nature of religion in U.S. society is changing.

Buchanan grew up on 21st Avenue in Altoona, Penn.

“A microcosm of American religion — its pitfalls and its possibilities,” Buchanan said.

On his street, Buchanan’s house was situated directly between an evangelical Baptist family and an Irish Catholic family. The evangelicals didn’t drink, smoke, play cards or read the paper; they went to church more than once a week. The Catholics went to confession, church on Sundays and never ate meat on Fridays.

“In between, we were Presbyterians, without any of the fervor of the Baptists or the dramatic mystery of the Shaugnessys (Catholic family). We were — to put it gently — lukewarm, which come to think about it, isn’t a bad characterization of Presbyterianism,” Buchanan said.

Each family had children Buchanan’s age, and they would often play together in the alleyways, arguing back and forth about basic theology. The Baptists thought the Catholics were heretical, going to hell, and the Catholics felt the same about the Baptist. The only thing they agreed on was that the lukewarm, Presbyterian Buchanans were definitely going to hell, Buchanan said.

That dynamic on 21st Avenue reflected the extent of interfaith relations in the U.S. up until the 1960s, Buchanan said.

“The 1960s hit American culture and American religion like a huge earthquake,” Buchanan said.

The U.S. culture was introduced to the war in Vietnam, peace movements, civil rights, feminism, the birthcontrol pill, rock ’n’ roll and an overall sexual revolution. The freethinking, progressive changes of the ’60s catalyzed a strong reaction. The liberalization of American social culture prompted the rise of a rigid and strict moral majority and religious right in the political sphere. That did little to quell the changing face of American society. The rise of the religious right prompted another shock. In the face of an increasingly unyielding religious majority, young people began to leave faith altogether.

“We seem to be moving away from exclusive religion to something more lovely, more gentle, more compassionate and inclusive. The issues that fired up the right and left 30 years ago are simply not issues for young adults,” Buchanan said.

In fact, Americans and faiths within the U.S. have been softening throughout the years on some of the biggest theological issues, specifically with exclusive truth claims. Exclusive truth claims — those that result in condemnation for anyone but the believer — are losing might. Today, people live in a world where they are aware that there is much they do not know. Fifty years ago, evangelical Christians would have been certain that any non-Christians were going to hell. Today, that idea is changing, Buchanan said.

America’s expanding religious diversity may be the reason for such a change, Buchanan said. Many people today know someone who is not of his or her same faith. People have friends and relatives that belong to different denominations or world religions. With so many different connections, it’s becoming more difficult for people to say that someone of a different belief system is definitely going to hell.

Even as the U.S. approaches an election season, where divisions and barriers will be built by both sides, it is important to remember that the country is a community and in the situation together, Buchanan said.

“We have an obligation to one another, and particularly to the weakest, smallest, most vulnerable, the children, the elderly, the sick, the hungry, the poor,” Buchanan said. “I’m going to try to remember that deep in the DNA of my nation is an impetus to promote the general welfare, and that is a good thing.”

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Piece Description

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

The Rev. John Buchanan closed the Week Two religious Interfaith Lecture Series themed “2012: What’s at Stake for the Common Good” with a lecture titled “A Sense of the Green.”

Buchanan is the editor and publisher of The Christian Century magazine. He is a Presbyterian pastor and was the moderator of the 208th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.

In his lecture, Buchanan said the provision of welfare has historically been a tradition of both the United States and most religions. In a time when American society is increasingly divided by both politics and faith, it is imperative that each citizen remember his or her responsibility lies in ensuring the general welfare and common good.

Buchanan opened his lecture with a story about a trip through the jury duty selection process in Cook County, Ill. Cook County has its fair share of notoriety, infamous for political corruption, greed and a low-ranking baseball team.

“But we do jury duty right,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan said he first arrived at the jury duty selection process irritated and complaining; but he said it soon became a powerful experience. In the room while waiting to be interviewed, Buchanan spoke with the others who had been called on that day. He realized the group was a diverse and vibrant cross-section of the city’s population. Buchanan said he was amazed by the fact that all of those people, with busy, hectic lives were brought in to participate in the process of ensuring that one person had a fair, just trial.

“I was moved by what it said about the inherent value of this young life, this incredible investment of time and energy and resources to assure that one of us, indeed one that didn’t seem to have much going for him, was not finally a discard, a throwaway,” Buchanan said.

“There is in this nation, from the very beginning and in its modern complexity, a commitment to the general welfare, the common good,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan refers to that innate commitment to the common good and general welfare as “a sense of the green.” The term green references the central green of old New England towns, he said. The green was a place that was open to all members of the community; it symbolized the shared common spirit of the town.

“An eloquent symbol that the town, the community, exists not only for the benefit of its individual citizens but for the general welfare which each and everyone has responsibility,” Buchanan said.

The sentiment of civic and governmental responsibility for the common good and general welfare can be found within the lines of the U.S. Constitution, Buchanan said. The preamble of the Constitution begins, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare.” In that line, in addition to laying out the common government responsibilities, of justice and defense, the writers of the constitution also demonstrated that general welfare of citizens was and still is tantamount, Buchanan said.

“There is here a community that is diminished and injured whenever any of its citizens are diminished or injured,” he said.

When including the general welfare as a goal in the preamble to their prescription for creating a “more perfect union,” the Founding Fathers were tapping into certain ideas related in religious texts centuries earlier, Buchanan said.

Approximately, eight centuries Before Common Era, a Hebrew prophet named Amos wrote, “I hate, I despise your religious festivals. Your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. I will have no regard for them, away with the noise of your songs, but let justice roll down like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream,” Buchanan said.

Later in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Prophet Micah wrote, “What does the Lord require of you but to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God?”

The first words that Jesus Christ is recorded as saying were words from the Prophet Isaiah, Buchanan said. In the passage, it is said that the prophet was sent to bear good news, to release captives, give sight to the blind and free the oppressed.

“This is how we’re supposed to be living together in community, caring for one another, paying particular attention to those on the margins, the weakest, the most vulnerable,” Buchanan said.

“Isn’t it strange, I’ve often thought, how dismissively we use the word ‘welfare’? In fact, it’s popular politically to criticize welfare,” Buchanan said.

As the term and concept of welfare has become less popular, a pervasive narcissism has swept through in its place. More often, people are only looking out for themselves. Issues like education are considered less equitably.

“It’s hard not to come to that conclusion when in my community we invest twice as much in the education of a child whose family lives in Lake Forest than we do in a child born in one of Chicago’s housing authority’s high-rises,” Buchanan said.

Some scholars have blamed divided U.S. society on the influence of religion. Others argue that it can both unite and divide. The uproar of certain religious leaders about the building of the “ground zero mosque” and the instance when a Baptist pastor burned the Quran are two recent occasions that exhibited religion’s divisiveness.

“Religion has done its share of dividing us,” Buchanan said. But religion and the nature of religion in U.S. society is changing.

Buchanan grew up on 21st Avenue in Altoona, Penn.

“A microcosm of American religion — its pitfalls and its possibilities,” Buchanan said.

On his street, Buchanan’s house was situated directly between an evangelical Baptist family and an Irish Catholic family. The evangelicals didn’t drink, smoke, play cards or read the paper; they went to church more than once a week. The Catholics went to confession, church on Sundays and never ate meat on Fridays.

“In between, we were Presbyterians, without any of the fervor of the Baptists or the dramatic mystery of the Shaugnessys (Catholic family). We were — to put it gently — lukewarm, which come to think about it, isn’t a bad characterization of Presbyterianism,” Buchanan said.

Each family had children Buchanan’s age, and they would often play together in the alleyways, arguing back and forth about basic theology. The Baptists thought the Catholics were heretical, going to hell, and the Catholics felt the same about the Baptist. The only thing they agreed on was that the lukewarm, Presbyterian Buchanans were definitely going to hell, Buchanan said.

That dynamic on 21st Avenue reflected the extent of interfaith relations in the U.S. up until the 1960s, Buchanan said.

“The 1960s hit American culture and American religion like a huge earthquake,” Buchanan said.

The U.S. culture was introduced to the war in Vietnam, peace movements, civil rights, feminism, the birthcontrol pill, rock ’n’ roll and an overall sexual revolution. The freethinking, progressive changes of the ’60s catalyzed a strong reaction. The liberalization of American social culture prompted the rise of a rigid and strict moral majority and religious right in the political sphere. That did little to quell the changing face of American society. The rise of the religious right prompted another shock. In the face of an increasingly unyielding religious majority, young people began to leave faith altogether.

“We seem to be moving away from exclusive religion to something more lovely, more gentle, more compassionate and inclusive. The issues that fired up the right and left 30 years ago are simply not issues for young adults,” Buchanan said.

In fact, Americans and faiths within the U.S. have been softening throughout the years on some of the biggest theological issues, specifically with exclusive truth claims. Exclusive truth claims — those that result in condemnation for anyone but the believer — are losing might. Today, people live in a world where they are aware that there is much they do not know. Fifty years ago, evangelical Christians would have been certain that any non-Christians were going to hell. Today, that idea is changing, Buchanan said.

America’s expanding religious diversity may be the reason for such a change, Buchanan said. Many people today know someone who is not of his or her same faith. People have friends and relatives that belong to different denominations or world religions. With so many different connections, it’s becoming more difficult for people to say that someone of a different belief system is definitely going to hell.

Even as the U.S. approaches an election season, where divisions and barriers will be built by both sides, it is important to remember that the country is a community and in the situation together, Buchanan said.

“We have an obligation to one another, and particularly to the weakest, smallest, most vulnerable, the children, the elderly, the sick, the hungry, the poor,” Buchanan said. “I’m going to try to remember that deep in the DNA of my nation is an impetus to promote the general welfare, and that is a good thing.”

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