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Friday, February 12, 2010

haiti: roots of the problem

When a disaster hits the poorest nation in the hemisphere, should we simply take up a collection and send aid, or would it be better to confront the reasons they are so poor?

Rick Steves:

We can blame Haiti’s squalor on voodoo, on its heritage of slavery, on corruption, on the fact that its main export is topsoil (in a treeless land, each rainstorm flushes precious soil into the sea), or on many other factors. But we must also look at American and European trade policies that help keep nations like Haiti underdeveloped—tariffs that help keep them "banana republics."

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Monday, January 18, 2010

on the Haiti earthquake and pact with the devil

No, Mr. Robertson, the nation of Haiti did not make a pact with the devil.

I don't suppose you are interested in the historical details, Mr. Robertson. An ideological defense of your prosperity theology is too important to let mere facts get in the way.

So to explain why the earthquake hit Haiti and not the Dominican Republic on the other side of the island, you invented a story of how the Dominican Republic prospers. Actually it's the fourth poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, with 42% of the population living in poverty, an unemployment rate of 14%, an inflation rate of more than 10%, and an infant mortality rate of 25 per 1000 births.

Then you passed along the unfounded gossip about how the Haitians supposedly made a pact with the devil to throw off the bonds of French oppression. Because the devil cares so much about oppressed peoples? I must admit, there are nuances of prosperity theology that escape my understanding.

And no, Mr. Robertson, the earthquake is not a blessing in disguise for the Haitian people. It's never a blessing for anyone when a natural disaster destroys their homes and kills their loved ones. The least we can do is stop passing judgment and offer whatever help we are able.

The Bread for the World website has a list of organizations providing aid right now.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

shoplifting as a christian virtue

Father Tim Jones, parish priest at St Lawrence and St Hilda in York in Britain, has made international headlines by seeming to advocate shoplifting in a recent sermon:

My advice in these circumstances, when people have been let down so very badly by the rest of society, is that they should not hurt anybody, and cope as best they can. The strong temptation is to burgle or rob people – family, friends, neighbours, strangers. Others are tempted towards prostitution, a nightmare world of degradation and abuse for all concerned. Others are tempted towards suicide.

Instead, I would rather that they shoplift. My advice, as a Christian priest, is to shoplift.

Now why would a Christian priest urge people to shoplift? Are there any circumstances that could possibly justify this criminal action? Is Father Jones suggesting that stealing is OK?

I do not offer such advice because I think that stealing is a good thing, or because I think it is harmless, for it is neither. I would ask that they do not steal from small family businesses, but from large national businesses, knowing that the costs are ultimately passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher prices. I would ask them not to take any more than they need, for any longer than they need.

Now it's beginning to sound downright marxist. Is Father Jones advocating, in a roundabout way, a brand of socialism?

No, actually, because the sermon is not really about shoplifting. It is grounded in the Magnificat, the song of Mary in the early part of Luke's gospel.

The recurrent theme of Mary's song is the faithful love of God towards his children, no matter how lowly, despised or lacking they may be. The phrases of her song are drawn almost entirely from the grateful pleading of the forlorn in Old Testament prophetic literature. It is a song which has done a huge amount to reinforce the Christian commitment to the poor and needy of society in every age.

But "commitment to the poor and needy of society" has always been easier to talk about than to put into practice. And that's what led Father Jones to make such a controversial declaration.

What advice should one give, for example, to an ex prisoner who was released in mid-November with a release grant of less than £50 and a crisis loan, also of less than £50, who applies immediately for benefits but is, with less than a week to go before Christmas, still to receive any financial support?

His advice, as we saw above, would be for them to take the things they need. It's not good advice, especially to someone with a criminal record. But what are the alternatives?

One might tell them to see their social worker, but they are on a waiting list for a social worker. Tell them to see their probation officer, perhaps, but the probation officer can only enquire of the benefits agency, and be told that benefits will eventually be forthcoming. One might tell them to get a job, but it is at the very best of times extremely difficult for an ex prisoner to find work, and these are not the best of times for anyone trying to find a job.

None of these options will provide food, clothing, or shelter. But a return to jail would, and so shoplifting begins to look more attractive.

There are, of course, ways to get the basic necessities without stealing:

They could perhaps get cereal and toast every morning from a local charity. Then could perhaps apply, and see if they are eligible for some limited help from the Salvation Army or other such body.

But such charity often has the unintended consequence of creating dependence. And that cuts to the heart of the gospel message. Jesus said he came to "bring good news to the poor," to "proclaim release to the captives," to "let the oppressed go free." But having to go to a shelter for cereal every morning is not freedom, and it is certainly not good news.

If a society cannot offer a better alternative than this to its most vulnerable citizens, it has failed. And that, ultimately, is Father Jones' point when he says the best option for the poor is shoplifting:

Let my words not be misrepresented as a simplistic call for people to shoplift. The observation that shoplifting is the best option that some people are left with is a grim indictment of who we are. Rather, this is a call for our society no longer to treat its most vulnerable people with indifference and contempt.

Again, the gospel message confronts us with harsh reality. Do we believe Christ died for sinners? Or are some people beyond his ability to redeem? In the sermon, preached the Sunday before Christmas, Father Jones urged his congregation:

Prepare for the coming of Christ, for Christmas is almost upon us. But don't let your preparations be limited to tinsel and turkey, crackers, fairy lights and chocolates. Prepare for Christ by singing his mother's song, and taking her words to heart. Don't just sing about lifting up the lowly: help with the lifting!

It's a message we all need to take seriously.

Here's the full transcript of the sermon.

hat tip: PamBG

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Monday, August 10, 2009

personal change, social change, and climate change

Derrick Jensen asks, in his article Forget Shorter Showers from Orion Magazine:

WOULD ANY SANE PERSON think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

And yet, Jenson observes, many of the most-publicized remedies for global warming focus on changes in personal habits.

Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal consumption—changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much—and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet?

Suppose every individual in the United States started taking shorter showers, bicycling to the grocery store, buying compact fluorescent light bulbs, using cloth shopping bags, and recycling all our trash. We might feel like congratulating ourselves, but aside from good feelings we wouldn't have accomplished much:

Even if every person in the United States did everything the movie suggested, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent. Scientific consensus is that emissions must be reduced by at least 75 percent worldwide.

The problem, Jensen says, goes to the very core of Western civilization. Our consumption-based culture is slowly choking this fragile earth that we all must share. Industrial forces beyond any one person's control cause more damage than any one person can mitigate. And we can't avert the problem by opting out:

So if we choose option one—if we avidly participate in the industrial economy—we may in the short term think we win because we may accumulate wealth, the marker of “success” in this culture. But we lose, because in doing so we give up our empathy, our animal humanity. And we really lose because industrial civilization is killing the planet, which means everyone loses. If we choose the “alternative” option of living more simply, thus causing less harm, but still not stopping the industrial economy from killing the planet, we may in the short term think we win because we get to feel pure, and we didn’t even have to give up all of our empathy (just enough to justify not stopping the horrors), but once again we really lose because industrial civilization is still killing the planet, which means everyone still loses.

This is a sobering realization for those of us who make a conscious effort to live simply. Though we may gain personal benefits from cutting back, we cannot turn back the tide of industry that is etching a permanent scar on the face of our planet.

As stark as this picture is, Jenson's solution is just as stark:

We can follow the example of those who remembered that the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.

But Jenson fails to recognize that these same systems have also brought major improvements to our quality of life. More children than ever survive into adulthood. More people overcome diseases that killed our ancestors. More people have enough food to eat. More families have their own homes. More people earn enough money to keep themselves out of poverty, and to save for a comfortable retirement.

We are hooked on the horns of a dilemma. We can't destroy our industrial systems without destroying the good they have brought us. Yet our industrial systems are pushing us over the edge of sustainability. Where do we go from here?

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Monday, May 11, 2009

monday music: habitat for humanity celebration

It's not really a music video. Habitat for Humanity was started by Millard Fuller in 1976 on one premise: Everybody deserves a simple, decent place to live. 300,000 houses later, Habitat continues to change the world, one family at a time.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

the coming evangelical collapse: the core

In my last post, I offered some thoughts on Michael Spencer's blog series The Coming Evangelical Collapse. On the whole, I think Spencer has identified some real problems, which all stem, IMO, from one core issue. And it's not limited to Evangelicals.

American Protestant Christianity is, to borrow a phrase, a mile wide and an inch deep. Now I want to make two things clear: 1) I say this as an American Protestant; I think Protestant Christianity has some life in it, and I think it does have something unique to offer. 2) I've met many dedicated people, both staff and laity, in American Protestant churches, people who are sincere in following the call God has placed on their lives.

But the American Protestant churches have been seduced by power. Not just political power, but the economic power that comes with being the majority in a wealthy and influential nation. Not only have we ignored the growing inequity in American society, we've largely been responsible for it. Ken Lay, founder of Enron, was a well-respected member of his church in Houston. Former CEO Richard Scrushy of HealthSouth, now in prison for bribery and mail fraud, donated a million dollars to his church during his trial.

When we're too cozy with the oppressors, we can't speak out against injustice. We are — to borrow another phrase — rich and prosperous, thinking that we need nothing, failing to see that we are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

If it takes a monumental collapse to rejuvenate the church, then I'm ready for it.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

denying the resurrection

Thomas at Everyday Liturgy was saddened to learn that his friend Peter Rollins denies the resurrection.


At one point in the proceedings someone asked if my theoretical position led me to denying the Resurrection of Christ. This question allowed me the opportunity to communicate clearly and concisely my thoughts on the subject, which I repeat here.

Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ.

But Peter Rollins is not just some liberal scholar whose "theoretical position" has led him to this place:

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

And yet, there's hope:

However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

I, too, deny the resurrection all too often.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

a lot to be thankful for

Looking back at the past year, I can see I have a lot to be thankful for. I have a roof over my head. I have a full time job that provides me with decent wages and a good health insurance plan, including dental insurance. My family has food on our table. Yes, I have a lot to be thankful for.

I've never lived under an oppressive government where I could be beaten or sent to prison simply for speaking my mind or for practicing my religion. I've never been the victim of a hate crime as a result of my skin color, religious beliefs, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation. Yes, I have a lot to be thankful for.

I haven't been driven from my home due to war or natural disaster. I've never been conscripted into the military or forced to work in a sweatshop. I've never had a family member disappeared. Yes indeed, I have a lot to be thankful for.

On this Thanksgiving day, please join me in offering a prayer for all the ones who don't have so much to be thankful for.

For the poor and the oppressed, for the unemployed and the destitute, for prisoners and captives, and for all who remember and care for them, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

from the Book of Common Prayer

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

let america be america again

I thought this was appropriate for today...

Let America Be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

Langston Hughes, 1938

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

the dishonest manager

About 2 1/2 years ago I blogged about the parable of the dishonest manager. Of all Jesus' parables, this one makes the least sense to me.

I'm currently taking a class on Jesus' parables through Grace United Methodist Church, and this was the parable for last week. One of the great things about this class is that for each parable there is a video with a modern retelling of the story.

One thing the video emphasized, which had not occurred to me in simply reading the parable, was the reaction of the debtors. This, I think, throws a new light on the parable.

The rich man is mainly concerned with keepin accurate books. He really doesn't care about sufferings of the tenant farmers who work for him. While he amasses great wealth for himself, he locks others out of financial independence.

The dishonest manager, on the other hand, understands that people are more important than rules. The less pious person turns out to be the hero (kind of like the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help the injured man while the priest and the levite had more important things to do).

But this raises the question: Are we to emulate the manager in his dishonesty? Does God want us to be like Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor?

My initial reaction is no, we don't need to be quite that detailed in relating the parable to our lives. The dishonest manager is there mostly for shock value.

But in re-reading the parable, I've noticed something else. Jesus uses the phrase "dishonest manager" in verse 8, and "dishonest wealth" in verse 11. So maybe we are not supposed to relate to the manager at all. The manager is our money. We — particularly Christians living in the United States and other first-world nations — are the rich man, and we've kept others in debt for much too long. While it might be unfortunate but expected to see huge income disparity within the economic systems of the world, the church ought to hold itself to another standard.

If I understand this parable, Jesus is saying that we should give more of our "dishonest wealth" — and all wealth is dishonest, regardless of how honestly we obtained it — lest we become enslaved to it.

But just how much does Jesus want from me? Should I give up my retirement fund? (With the way it's going lately, it won't be worth much anyway.) Should I stop saving for a newer car? Should I forget about buying a house?

I liked this parable better when it made no sense at all.

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

why diss community organizers?

Sarah Palin, in her acceptance speech at the GOP convention, criticized the leadership experience Barack Obama gained working as a community organizer for the Developing Communities Project, a Christian ministry that works for social justice by helping adults with job training and continuing education, and by teaching kids about anger management, conflict resolution, and saying no to drugs.

Palin claims that, by contrast, she has had "actual responsibilities" serving as an elected official.

The truly puzzling aspect of Governor Palin's criticism is that her Republican Party has long advocated non-governmental alternatives — particularly faith-based solutions — as the best remedy for social problems. Can someone help me understand?

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

foreign aid: does it hurt more than it helps?

Massive amounts of aid in the form of free food have been going to Ethiopia since famine was first reported in the Western press, and we were in Lalibela the day one of the monthly shipments arrived. People from all over the countryside came into town on their donkeys -- well, not into town, but near it. The poorer you are, the more food you get, and no one wanted to show off his possessions, so everyone parked his donkeys about three kilometers from town and walked the rest of the way. There were hundreds of donkeys around, waiting on the edge of town, and hundreds of people in the center of town, waiting for the food trucks to arrive. With their arrival, fifty-kilogram sacks of wheat stenciled with the name of the contributing country -- some from the United States, some from Germany on this occasion -- were distributed.

While this was going on, glorious, lush fields all around Lalibela lay fallow because nobody farmed them anymore. An entire generation of Ethiopians has grown up without learning how to farm. Instead, to put food on the table, they go to town every month, park the donkey, and collect grain. Some recipients, the day we were in Lalibela, carried their ration of wheat directly over to the town market and started selling it. And so, in addition to that generation that has never learned how to farm, there is a generation of farmers who have simply stopped farming because they can no longer sell the fruits of their labor -- there is no way to compete with free grain.

Jim Rogers, Adventure Capitalist

At the turn of the millennium, retired investor Jim Rogers took a trip around the world with his fiancee. What he saw, particularly in Africa, was distressing:

Throughout the continent there are huge markets where on can find bundle upon bundle of T-shirts spread out for sale, donated by places such as the YMCA of Cleveland and the First Baptist Church of Charlotte. These and clothing of all kinds are given as donations in the United States destined for the poor of Africa, but by the time they reach the continent, they are sold as a commercial product. Not only do they enrich the entrepreneurs involved in the traffic, they also put local tailors out of business. The tailors cannot compete, nor can the people who weave cloth, spin yarn, or grow cotton, the people whose costs the tailor incurs. In Africa you used to see tailors everywhere. You would see them by the side of the road with their sewing machines. Now you see them only rarely. How can any of them compete with a product that the entrepreneur gets virtually free?

Has well-intentioned foreign aid hurt the people it was meant to help? Is Africa worse off today than it was before the West began sending massive amounts of goods in their direction?

But it gets worse. Non-government organizations (NGOs) have raised billions of dollars to send representatives to Africa to make their expertise freely available to the locals. But this form of "aid" may be the worst:

The Bangladesh International Network (BIAN), while we were there, filed suit against UNICEF, WHO, the World Bank, the Islamic Development Bank, NGO Forum, and other groups that were responsible for funding the sinking of wells contaminated by arsenic and other poisons. ... As a local newspaper reported, "The short and long term effect of arsenic poisoning is lethal. Research has proved beyond doubt that the source of arsenic poisoning is the shallow tube wells from which ninety-seven percent of the rural population receives its drinking water. People are drinking poisonous water every day from shallow tube wells while policymakers and their implementing agencies continue to sink these. While World Bank's own figures claim 20 million people are currently at risk and 75 million are potentially at risk of arsenic poisoning from tube wells, donors continue funding to sink tube wells."

Rather than stop digging wells, international agencies were conducting the Third International Symposium on Reducing the Impact of Toxic Chemicals on Bengal Basin's Economies -- the third -- in the midst of what may be the largest mass poisoning in history.

If all this is true, is there anything we can do to fix the problem? Rogers has the outline of a solution:

Forgive all the debt. Right now. African countries, combined, owe some $350 billion plus in foreign debt, according to the International Monetary Fund. While no one really expects these countries to pay back that debt, they are still required to finance it, making annual payments on the loans. If we assume the interest on the loans to be 8 percent, it means that African countries must collectively pay $26 billion a year in interest. That does not include principal payments. If we assume principal payments to be another 2 to 3 percent, annual payments to finance the debt total over $30 billion. Once the debt is forgiven, Africa's leaders will have an additional $30 billion annually that can be put to productive use, plus no debt hanging over them. Call the $350 billion reparation for supposed past sins, if it makes you feel better.

This much has been suggested before, by charitable organizations and even some western governments.

However, part of the deal would be no more foreign aid.

The effects would undoubtedly be profound. Africa would be left to survive on its own. The people of Africa, no longer relying on handouts, would learn to fend for themselves. The Ethiopian teenagers I met who had never learned how to farm would have to take up the plow. The madmen fighting on the Horn of Africa would stop receiving arms from around the world. Nigerian leaders would no longer be able to walk into banks and walk out with sacks of U.S. dollars. Those who run Mozambique would no longer be able to solicit flood relief money with which to line their coffers. The IMF and World Bank would go bankrupt, and local NGOs would be forced out of business.

Would it work? I don't know how this last part could possibly be enforced. But enabling Africans to solve their own problems is the only way to solve them.

More than eight hundred years ago, Moses Maimonides wrote that the best type of charity was to help people become more self-sufficient. When will today's advanced societies learn this lesson?

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Friday, October 26, 2007

church and statism

Update: When I first posted this, my concluding paragraph did not get pasted into the edit window. I've corrected the omission.

A few weeks ago, John the Methodist linked to an essay titled The Liberal Temptation. John argued that the phenomenon discussed in that essay -- using state power to advance the church's agenda -- is a temptation of conservatives as well as liberals. He more accurately labeled it a statist temptation.

In the comments, Dan Trabue gave a lengthy defense of the idea that Christians should expect the state to help care for the poor -- and quoted several Bible verses to back his points.

I can understand both of their points of view, and to some extent I agree with both. There's no better indicator than that: John and Dan were actually discussing two different issues. I'll try to touch on both of them here.

First, the role of the state. The United States Constitution outlines the role of the national government and specifies its duties, one of which is "to promote the general welfare." Article I, Section 8 authorizes Congress to collect taxes for this purpose (among others).

So it would seem there should be no controversy there: If giving aid to people living in poverty promotes the general welfare (and I think it does), then the federal government has not just the right, but the duty to collect taxes for welfare programs.

Furthermore, through tax revenues the government has access to more resources than any individual or group could ever hope to collect. While most private charities do the best they can with the resources they have, the need is just too great. If we were to rely solely on voluntary charitable giving, a lot more people would fall into poverty.

The second issue here is the mandate Jesus gave to Christians to take care of those in need. Our salvation depends on it, according to Matthew 25:31-46.

But, as John points out in his post:

Compulsion is the enemy of evangelism, for there is no true conversion or sanctification unless is is uncoerced. Forced virtue, Left or Right, is no virtue at all.

If Congress votes to use our taxes -- everyone's taxes -- to fund a program to help the poor, we haven't fulfilled Jesus' mandate. Christian giving isn't simply a matter of helping those in need: It's also a matter of giving up our own desires and truly loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. If we give nothing more than what is automatically withdrawn from our paychecks, we are not really giving of ourselves.

Legislation of morality never works: The Volstead Act of 1919, which outlawed the sale of alcohol in the United States, did not eliminate the drinking of alcohol -- it merely created a new class of criminals.

Neither the right nor the left seem to be immune to the statist temptation: Just as we can't make people righteous by passing laws against abortion or homosexuality, we can't make people righteous by donating their money for them through tax laws. Laws may change a person's outward behavior -- or at least a person's public behavior --- but they cannot change people's hearts.

So I am left with two seemingly contradictory beliefs: Without the resources that only the state can muster, we can't hope to take care of all the people in need... but giving by proxy through taxes is not true charity.

But these are not mutually exclusive. It's not impossible to give to private charities and pay our taxes. It's no sin to expect our government to be responsive to the needs of its citizens. It's also no sin to give of ourselves to take care of our brothers and sisters.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

free burma

Free Burma!

Free Burma

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Monday, July 02, 2007

still no living wage

The new Iraq spending bill, passed by Congress last month and signed by President Bush, contains a rider that will raise the minimum wage from $5.15 per hour to $7.25.

It may sound like a big raise, but it will be phased in slowly over three years, and even after the second increase minimum-wage workers will be earning less (adjusted for inflation) than they were in 1997. The third phase doesn't even occur until after the next election, which means that Congress members will be able to boast for two election cycles about how they have helped the working poor, even as they keep the minimum wage below the poverty line.

I, for one, am not impressed. The purpose of a minimum wage should be to lift people out of poverty, not to keep them in it.

I've heard all the arguments about how some work is more valuable than other work, and I think there is some merit in that. But that misses the point. The minimum wage is not a nationwide mandatory one-size-fits-all income for all people. Let the corporate CEOs, the baseball players, and the movie stars make their millions, but give the janitors, the dishwashers, the farm hands, and the administrative assitants enough to take care of a family.

Now it may be true that some of these people don't need to make enough to raise a family. Maybe that administrative assitant is married to that janitor, and with their combined incomes, they can already make ends meet. But there was a time in American history when a family did not need two incomes just to stay out of poverty. There was a time, not too long ago, when even families of modest means could make a choice of whether to have one parent stay home and raise the children while the other parent brought home enough money to cover expenses. For an increasing number of families, that choice is no longer available.

I'm quite aware that some families make comfortably more than a poverty wage, and still choose to have both parents work. That's fine. I'm all for letting people have that choice. I just think that the same choice should be available to those at the bottom of the employment ladder.

Furthermore, a living wage would benefit the growing number of families who, for whatever reason, have only one adult in the household. If a single parent could stave off poverty with a single job, they will have more time to devote to their children.

Ultimately, that's what minimum wage laws are all about: Enabling parents to spend more time with their families. In a nation as prosperous as the United States, a nation whose leaders consistently give bold lip service to "family values," we could afford to keep working families out of poverty if we wanted to.

Do we want to?

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

trying to do something constructive

My recent post Law of the Marketplace has produced a lengthy discussion between OneOfMany and Steve Hayes. I think there is common ground to be found here.

In his most recent comment, OneOfMany said, among other things:

As regards hard living and doing without, that is a subject that I’ve tried to do something about by visiting with and spending time with and working with and helping poor people, hard living people, blue collar not well educated working class independent proud teeter tottering on the edge of economic crisis don’t want no handouts people who will not listen to you, to whom you have no right to speak until you have earned the right to speak to them by actually caring and trying to do something constructive to help them.

This matches my own experience. Most poor people want to help themselves. They need a helping hand, not a handout. Many charities are not designed to really help. Whether by design or by accident, they send a clear message that the giver and the receiver are not equals.

About ten years ago I volunteered a few times at food distribution center. I won't name the organization. Once a month, families were allowed to come and receive a shopping cart loaded with dry goods. As I recall, each month there were two lists, one for families with an infant or a toddler, and one for families with older kids. My job was to fill the cart from the list, push the cart out their car, unload the food, and bring the cart back. The recipients were not allowed to do anything for themselves. Wouldn't want them making substitutions in their rations, or running off with a cart.

Every person arrived with a frown or a scowl on their face. They didn't appreciate it -- and why should they? It's humiliating enough to have to rely on handouts in the first place; it's much worse not to be allowed to do what you can.

I remember a boy who must have been about 10-11 years old, who came once with his mother. As I finished filling the cart, he said, "I want to push the cart out." This was a clear violation of the rules. I rolled the cart ouside the door, then, once we were out of view of other volunteers, I let him push the cart to his car.

In all the times I volunteered there, I think that boy was the only person I saw who showed even a glimmer of hope. The setup simply was not conducive to really helping people. I don't fully blame the charity. With the number of people they served, and the limited supplies available, they needed to keep a tight control on their inventory. If people were allowed to choose their own food, some items would be gone before some people could get there.

Even in the most prosperous nation in the history of the world, the need is great. One out of every seven people in the United States lives in poverty. It's good that churches and other groups provide assistance. But the problems are too severe to solve through voluntary programs. The problems are systemic, so any solution must begin with changing the system.

I don't know what the answer is. As OneOfMany points out, no other economic system has proven effective at providing justice and opportunity. Unfortunately, neither does market economics. If we want any semblance of a fair and just society, we need to find a new model.

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Saturday, March 31, 2007

law of the marketplace?

Earlier this week, a person named Anonymous found my post from last month on the minimum wage. Anon raises a few good points, but also includes this breathtakingly inane argument about economics:

To raise the minimum wage is a true "crime against humanity!" It is a lie hatched in that same hell that tries to persuade us that somehow or other, we can ignore the law of the marketplace. As with the law of gravity, we certainly can ignore it. But we can not avoid the consequences of ignoring it.

Anon is simply wrong. Economics is not a science in the sense that physics is. Gravity has existed since virtually the beginning of the universe. When Isaac Newton formulated his law of gravitation, he was describing something that was already there, something that is (quite literally) universal. We cannot escape the effects of gravity, even if we could travel to other planets or other galaxies. By contrast, economic systems are merely human creations. The "law" of supply and demand may be a useful tool to aid producers in pricing their goods and services in a market economy, but it is not truly a law in any sense of the word. Nobody is required to set prices for maximum profit. And outside a market economy, supply and demand may not be relevant.

In a gift economy, for example, generosity is more highly valued than profit margins. Success is defined by what one gives away. The potlatch custom of Pacific Northwest tribes is perhaps the best known historical example, but gift economies still thrive today in many forms.

Computer programmer Richard Stallman argues for a software gift economy:

When your friend says "that's a nice program, could I have a copy?" At that moment, you will have to choose between two evils. One evil is: give your friend a copy and violate the licence of the program. The other evil is: deny your friend a copy and comply with the licence of the program.

Once you are in that situation, you should choose the lesser evil. The lesser evil is to give your friend a copy and violate the licence of the program.

Now, why is that the lesser evil? The reason is that we can assume that your friend has treated you well and has been a good person and deserves your cooperation...

However, to be the lesser evil does not mean it is good. It's never good - not entirely - to make some kind of agreement and then break it. It may be the right thing to do, but it's not entirely good.

Stallman has devoted much of his life to saving computer users from this dilemma. Since 1983 he has created software under a special license that gives users what he calls that four essential freedoms:

  • Freedom to use the program for any purpose
  • Freedom to study the source code for the program
  • Freedom to help their friends and neighbors by sharing copies
  • Freedom to give back to the community by submitting modifications and improvements

Through the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation, Stallman has significantly influenced the development of the software industry. Most of the software that makes the Internet work is available under Stallman's GNU license. It is not too much of a stretch to say that the Internet is the product of a gift economy.

Another gift economy, one that has survived from ancient times and still thrives today, is the church. Members do not go to church to purchase goods and services. Churches rely primarily on voluntary giving to meet their budget requirements. And even though many churches struggle to make ends meet, the success of this organization for 2000 years is a testimony to the fact that market economics does not control our fate.

Which brings me back to anon's comment. Contrary to what anon declares, as a matter of fact we can ignore the "law of the marketplace." A market-based economy is just one of many possible economic systems. If our goal is to eventually funnel all our money into the hands of those who are most eager to obtain it, then a pure market economy is the way to go. If, on the other hand, we value human dignity more than profit margins, we need to look for ways to temper the market's more ruthless effects.

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

the minimal minimum wage

Congress is on the verge of raising the federal minimum wage for the first time in a decade, but many states have already taken further steps to ensure that their workers won't get left behind by inflation. As of the beginning of this year, twenty-nine states have higher minimum wage requirements than the federal law. Most of the other states have tied their minimum wage to the federal level. Only one state has a minimum wage lower than $5.15 an hour.

In Kansas, workers not covered by the federal law -- about 19,000 people -- are subject to a minimum wage of $2.65 per hour. A bill to raise the state minimum to the federal minimum was rejected this week. Geraldine Flaherty, who was my representative when I lived in Wichita, called the defeat a "crime against humanity," adding, "Kansans deserve better."

But legislators from Johnson County, one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, disagreed:

“This is one of the greatest superstitions of all, that if you raise the minimum wage you are doing anybody any favors,” said state Rep. Mike Kiegerl, R-Olathe.

Rep. Benjamin Hodge, R-Overland Park, argued against the increase saying the state should avoid “European-style socialist bills.”

On one level, Rep. Kiegerl is right. Raising a person's annual income from $5500 to $10,700 is not doing them a favor. It's still not nearly enough to keep a family out of poverty.

Some people would argue that, if minimum wage earners wanted to make more, they should get an education or learn new skills. But such thinking is delusional at best. It's true that some individuals may be able to improve their economic status by getting new skills or education, but they can only do so if others fail to keep pace.

This is the point at which the debate usually goes off course: Those who oppose regular increases in the minimum wage refuse to look at the bigger picture. If everyone in the nation had a postgraduate degree and knew how to perform neurosurgery and could program the guidance system of a satellite, we as a society would still have a need for people to perform menial work.

Raising the minimum wage is a moral issue. It is a matter of society agreeing that work -- all work -- is valuable. If we don't have someone to clean the bathrooms at our workplace, to stock the shelves in the grocery store, or to wash our dishes at the restaurant, we won't survive long as a society.

That's why raising the state minimum to the federal level -- even the new federal level that Congress is considering -- would not be enough. A minimum wage that does not keep a family out of poverty is a disgrace, especially for a nation wealthier than any other that has ever existed.

If we can't find a way to ensure a living wage for full time work, then we don't deserve to survive long as a society.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

old testament justice

Is not this the fast that I choose:
 to loose the bonds of injustice,
 to undo the thongs of the yoke,
 to let the oppressed go free,
 and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
 and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
 and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
 and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
 the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
 you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

- Isaiah 58:6-9

Some Christians like to make a distinction between "Old Testament justice" and "New Testament mercy," as if God's character changed at Jesus' crucifixion.

It's a strange picture of justice, too. The ordinary meaning of justice -- the one used in the Isaiah quote above and in countless other passages of the Hebrew Scriptures -- is nowhere to be seen. Justice becomes merely a synonym for judgment, as these quotes from the linked article demonstrate:

It is a covenant of the Creator’s righteous justice—or judgment—under the Law!


The Covenant of Law and the principle of judgment (or justice) under the law, therefore, applies to every nation, to every government, and to every people.

In this point of view, justice is the opposite of the mercy that God showed when Jesus gave his life on the cross.

But that's not the way the word justice is used in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Isaiah passage I quoted above, the opposite of justice is "the bonds of injustice" or the "yoke" of oppression. Justice means to share our bread with the hungry, to "bring the homeless poor into [our] house," to cover the naked.

This idea is not limited to Isaiah. In Micah, for example, we are told to "do justice." In this passage, justice is associated with kindness, not judgment:

With what shall I come before the Lord,
 and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
 with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
 with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
 the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
 and what does the Lord require of you
  but to do justice,
  and to love kindness,
  and to walk humbly with your God?

- Micah 6:6-8

In Amos, justice is contrasted with festivals, solemn assemblies, burnt offerings, and praise and worship music. None of these things is as important to God as eliminating injustice:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
 and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
 I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
 I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
 I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
 and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

- Amos 5:21-24

That's just a small sample of what the Hebrew Prophets say about justice. And it's not just the prophets. Psalm 72, for example, begins with this prayer:

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

Even the Torah -- the legal code of ancient Israel -- contained specific commands for acting with justice. Deuteronomy has a whole chapter devoted to taking care of the poor:

When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the Lord your God.

You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.

- Deuteronomy 24:10-15

And some words that might be relevant to today's debate about illegal immigration:

You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.

- Deuteronomy 24:17-22

Charging interest on loans was a sin:

If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.

- Exodus 22:25

The book of Leviticus offers the earliest bankruptcy protection law, with terms that are very favorable to the borrower:

If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God.

- Leviticus 25:35-38

So, in a sense, the folks at Renew America are right: The God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a God of justice. But when the Scriptures speak of justice, they mean social justice. God cares deeply about the poor and the oppressed, and expects us to treat them fairly.

It seems to me that, from a biblical perspective, justice and mercy are the same thing.

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