Category: The Common Good

A Letter To My Congressman

The Honorable Trey Hollingsworth

United States  House of Representatives

PO Box 421

Jeffersonville IN  47130

Dear Mr. Hollingsworth

The President’s budget proposal raises serious concerns for me.  Now, I am aware that this preliminary document is just a starting point for negotiation between the White House and the Congress, and that the final budget may bear faint resemblance to the document released this past week.

My concerns stem from the assumptions that the President expresses in his rhetoric and that are reflected in this document.  What I hear in the President’s arguments is the desire to return the economy to the prosperity of the 1950’s and 1960’s, to a time before the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the numerous regulation that the EPA has placed on manufacturers, as if these regulations and constraints and these alone account for the loss of manufacturing and mining jobs in this country.

I share the President’s desire to stimulate the economy and to bring living wage jobs to the tens of millions of unemployed and underemployed workers throughout our country. However, his assertion that deregulation and rolling back environmental protections will provide the stimulus that the economy needs is fundamentally flawed.

In my view, the prosperity of the 1950’s and 1960’s arose from the fact that following world war, our fathers returned to an economy supercharged by war production; to cities untouched by bombardment and invasion; to rail yards, ports, roads, bridges, canals, dams, and airports capable of operating at full capacity.  With our infrastructure entirely intact, America had 50% of the manufacturing capacity of the entire world.  Little wonder that as America was called on to supply half of the manufactured goods of the world, there were jobs enough for all skilled and able-bodied workers.

Just because there was no EPA at that time and that there were no costs and constraints placed on business by an EPA does not mean that the establishment of the EPA caused the decline an American manufacturing and mining that followed this period of extraordinary prosperity.

I urge you and the entire Indiana Delegation to reject the President’s flawed arguments.  Instead, for the sake of present and future generations, maintain a robust and well-funded Environmental Protection Agency and to continue funding of other agencies that study the environment and provide the scientific data that we desperately need to make wise and rational decisions about the future of our country and our planet.

Fear in Trumptopia

I will grant that our forebearers in the Pleistocene Era survived in part because they learned to assume that the rustling in the grass might be caused a snake rather than merely the wind. This default assumption served them well because in their case a “false positive” resulted in no more harm than to stop them in their tracks for a moment while they assessed the situation before moving on.

By the time of Ancient Israel, human consciousness had progressed to the point that, rather than fear the foreigner, the sojourner, and the alien living in their midst, our forebearers learned to set aside their fears and embrace others from outside their tribe. To minimize risk of harm at the hands sojourners, these forebearers of contemporary Judaism, Christianity, and Islam developed an ethic of hospitality; a reciprocal agreement that the traveler would be welcomed, housed, and fed. The traveler agreed not to plunder the household of the host. The host offered hospitality and protection and the sojourner behaved as a gracious guest, shared news from far away, and did not overstay.

We find evidence of this shared agreement throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Numerous passages declare that the sojourner and the alien must receive just treatment; be allowed to glean the fields and vineyards for sustenance; and participate in festivals and celebrations.

When the prophets spoke out against the injustice of their day, they warned that doom and devastation would come as the consequence of the unjust acts of an unjust society. They repeatedly listed the mistreatment of the sojourner and the alien among the shortcomings that foretold doom.

Now, I am not naïve enough to think that America has no enemies in the world or that there are not people living among us who wish us harm. What I do believe and would ask our leaders to consider is that fear-based policies such as travel bans, extreme vetting, and refusal to admit refugees creates a climate of unwarranted fear and suspicion. Further, that policies that grow out of this fear and suspicion do more to bring about the radicalization of immigrants, inspire homegrown acts of domestic terrorism, and perpetuate unrest than they do to make us secure.

Unlike the rustling in the grass caused by the wind, the “false positive” of assuming that all immigrants, all refugees, and all Muslims pose an imminent threat causes harm to us. It creates an unwarranted climate of fear. It justifies irrational policies like building a border wall, singling out followers of one of the world’s great peace-loving religions, and denying aid and comfort to honest, trustworthy souls who are seeking nothing more than a safe refuge from war, violence, and death.

If we should fear anything in our current circumstances, we should fear the corrosive effects of our fear-based over-reactions and unjust policies. Instead of fearing the immigrant, the refugee, and the sojourner among us, we should fear the hardheartedness that results from exaggerating the threat of international terrorism, homegrown radicalization, and undocumented immigrants living peacefully among us. Instead of walling ourselves off from our neighbors, closing our airports, and attributing hostility to billions of peace-loving Muslims, we must listen to the angels of our better nature, move cautiously yet boldly toward opening our hearts and our borders, and build our national policies on a firm foundation of justice and righteousness rather than upon the sands unwarranted fear and ignorance.

A New Year’s Eve Reflection

I’ve heard the United States described as an “experiment” in democracy ever since our founders put quill to paper and muskets to shoulder. The experiment continued when industrialization transformed the economy and the workforce in ways the founders could not foresee. Now, the experiment continues as we adapt, yet again, to a world our founders could have never imagined, a globalized economy and the era of big data.

At each fork in the road, we have been led by those who anticipate the future with caution, secure in the comforts of the status quo and cautious of the uncertainties that lie over the horizon. They are joined by others who find their comfort in the anticipation of the undiscovered country and who set their fears aside, inspired by the success of their predecessors who successfully navigated the equally daunting challenges of their day.

As the New Year arrives, I find myself with a foot in each world. When I see the empty factories on the west side of my town, I can only imagine the hardships that those closings have had on thousands of families and how bleak the future must seem to some of them. Contrast that with the energy and vitality of the east side where tens of thousands of young people are pursuing an education and living into the hope of a promising future.

In this microcosm, where fear and discouragement live side by side with hope and possibility, it is easy to see the challenges that face our national leadership. What disheartened me most in 2016 was watching our politicians exacerbate these divisions in their attempts to energize their base of supporters by creating warring factions rather than focusing on the common ground on which we all stand.

Rather than forcing us to choose between environmental regulation and jobs for the unemployed, are there not both/and solutions? Instead of retreating into Fortress America, can we not retain a leadership position in the global economy while launching initiatives that will better equip our workforce to compete in the global economy? Do we really believe that government is the problem that underlies all these challenges and that tearing down the establishment provides the better way?

My hope for 2017 is that the conflicts that are sure to arise as we inaugurate a new president will point us back to the fundamental understanding of our founders that a well conceived government is the guarantor of liberty and prosperity not their antagonist. I hope that these conflicts will inspire a new generation of leaders to enter the game and remind us that politics is a respectable calling that demands the talents of our best and brightest. I hope that our next generation of leaders will again call for our allegiance to create one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Post Election Blues

November 9, 2016

Despite the fact that we just chose celebrity over substance, and promises over a demonstrated record of performance, I am shocked…shocked I tell you to find that my mood this morning is one of optimism, hope, and dare I say, joy.

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I am no fan of the President-Elect, who will hereinafter be referred to as President-Elect T—-, and after January 20, 2017 as President T—-, as I cannot bear to speak his name.

My hope lies, not in an expectation of the wonderful things that will come from a T—- administration; rather, my hope lies in my profound confidence in our government and the enduring strength of our democratic institutions. I am certain that our nation is stronger than any individual who may occupy any office. The House of Representatives is more than the Speaker of the House. The Senate is so much more than an ill-tempered Senate Majority Leader, and the Supreme Court than its Chief Justice or any given member of the court. I believe that the Presidency is more than the words and deeds of the occupant of the Oval Office.

Despite the fact that I just renewed my passport, I have no plans to leave. I believe that no matter what occurs in the next four years, or who occupies the Oval Office, or who President-Elect T—- appoints to high office; our nation and our values will survive. Further, I believe that the T—- presidency will usher in a new golden age of American Democracy and world leadership. Not, I hasten to add, because of the actions and policies of a President T—-, but in reaction to what I am led to expect by his campaign rhetoric and his reported past actions.

I expect a President T—- to inspire the next generation of national leaders to seek office with higher goals and higher values than we have seen so far from President-Elect T—-. I hope that the T—- presidency will finally put an end to the notion that politics is the last refuge of thieves and scoundrels; a profession unworthy of our best and brightest. And I hope that as a result of his time in office, men of his ilk will no longer show their face in public let alone seek an office of high public trust.

December 16, 2016

I will not protest the election of Donald Trump although as anyone who knows me can attest I am not a fan of the President-elect. It is, after all, a founding and necessary principle of a functioning democracy that the losing party gracefully accept the results of an election as Secretary Clinton did as soon as the results were announced and as Governor Mitt Romney did in 2012.

Further, although I have my doubts about the actual business savvy of the President-elect since his adult life seems to have been devoted to creating and perpetuating an image, first of the rich playboy, then of the successful real estate tycoon, then the reality show star; images that remain cloaked in a secrecy that prevents the public from knowing any facts that would substantiate the claims he makes about himself; In the face of my doubts, I will not give into my fears that we have elected a vacuous parody of a man.

If, however, the darkest implications of the campaign rhetoric, the cabinet appointees, and the midnight tweets come to pass, I hope that I have the courage of my convictions and that I will speak out when the illusion of a populist champion of the disillusioned working family falls away and the authoritarian regime emerges in all its fascist fury.

And that I will stand with the immigrant, the LGBT and gender non-conforming members of my community, and the Muslims, and all followers of faith traditions not recognized by triumphalist Christians, and all whose ethnic heritage threatens the alt-right.

And that I will not only stand with but also suffer alongside those who are disenfranchised, dismissed, and oppressed when all the hateful rhetoric that energized the campaign rallies and victory tours activates the basest demons of our shadow selves and unleashes a rage and fury not seen on our shores and in our streets.

If these are the final days of our democracy, and I hope and pray that these are instead the beginning of a new realization of the ideals and dreams of our founders, if these are the harbingers of our final days then I commit my life, my fortune, and my sacred honor to those who stand up and say no to Trump’s vision of a great America.

 

 

Black Lives Matter

We hunted you down
like animals in the forest
bound you in chains
and loaded you into ships
like so much freight.

During the long dark voyages
from below deck
we heard your cries of anguish and pain
as murmurs, strange sounds in foreign tongues.

We sold you at auction
making fortunes in the marketplace.
We bred you like livestock and trained you
to the arduous and dangerous tasks
of building fortunes for ourselves
and our descendants.

We deprived you of your culture
and languages but continued
hearing the murmurs
in the secret meetings around campfires in the night
strange sounds in foreign tongues.

You worked and toiled for generations
while we talked in pious tones
of liberty and freedom from the bondage
of our British overlords
still hearing your murmurs, strange sounds in foreign tongues.

We banned your religions and traditions.
We civilized you and saved you from the wrath of our God
and forced you to sit in our meetinghouses
apart from our families whom you toiled to serve.
In exchange for your myths and sacred truths
we gave you St. Paul:
“Slaves obey your masters”

Your freedom came,
not as a declaration of your humanity
or recognition of your personhood,
or as the fruits of the tireless work of our enlightened few.
We released you from chattel slavery
as a military tactic to undermine the economy
of your rebellious overlords.

No sooner had we changed the law of the land
to make room for you at the table
that we found new forms of slavery
to keep “you in your place”

Jim Crow visited you in the night
shrouded in white
by the light of burning crosses.
As you huddled in fear,
again we heard your murmurs,
this time in a language we should have understood.

At last, you quoted our scriptures back to us
and found strength and comfort in our God and our Jesus.
Still we turned a deaf ear
to your humanity and dignity.

We grudgingly offered you a “separate but equal” place
in the country that you labored to build.
All the while we took steps to ensure that your place
would always be separate but never equal.

We took comfort in our rationale
that you just weren’t ready for full citizenship
you couldn’t cope with the complexities of urban life
you were essentially and fundamentally different
and need our continued guidance and direction.
(read: our oppression and exploitation)

You labored on, and on,
finding your dignity and strength
in the truth we refused to hear.
This time your murmurs rang out loud and clear
We shall over come…
Someday…

And that day came and went
and we pointed to Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays
and Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan
and Tiger Woods and an African-American President
with an African Name.

We declared a post-racial America had finally arrived
and we continued to stop and frisk your young men on the streets
and lock them up and throw away the key
and hunt them down so we could stand our ground
and choke them to death in police custody
and shoot them down
and break their backs
and shoot them down
and turn a deaf ear
to the murmurs that have haunted us down the years
the murmurs that we cannot silence by declaring
“All lives matter”

The Poor are not a Problem to be Solved

Recently, I posted two somewhat provocative statements on my Facebook wall. I was a bit disappointed by the relatively few comments generated by the following:

The poor are not a problem to be solved.

The opposite of poverty is not wealth,
The opposite of poverty is justice.

The first statement was conveyed to me in a conversation with my Spiritual Director several years ago. Regrettably, I did not note the source of the second (Probably a Facebook post).

It is not a topic we like to discuss. Haven’t we all been annoyed by panhandlers asking for money as we enter the grocery store? Pastors and parishioners alike are vexed by how to handle the person stopping by on Sunday morning asking for gas money so he can make it home to his family, buy medication for his children, or complete an emergency car repair. After hearing enough of these requests, it is easy to slip into cynicism and conclude that it is all one big con game.

Advice to the troubled parishioner or the harassed shopper sometimes alludes to Jesus telling his disciples “for the poor you have with you always” in an attempt to mollify their discomfort with ignoring these requests. Politicians often cite this passage to give their plans to cut welfare programs an air of respectability. I also hear it used in fatalistic resignation to the enormity of the task of assisting the poor.

The statement, in fact, comes from the narrative of the anointing in Bethany found in the Gospel of John, chapter 12. Judas asks, “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”… But Jesus said, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial.  For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.”(John 12:5,7-8, NRSV)

Far from dismissing the plight of the poor, Jesus is saying that concern for the poor is not the only agenda for his followers. This passage foreshadows his death and burial and affirms that the disciples have responsibility for both the immediate concerns of Jesus and his followers, as well as an on-going ministry that clearly includes concern for the welfare of the poor.

Looking at the ethics and teaching of all three Abrahamic Traditions, we find that hospitality to the stranger; protection of the sojourner; and care for the widow and the orphan are foundational ethical teachings of the prophets of each tradition.

So, in response to statements such as “the poor are not a problem to be solved” and “the opposite of poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice,” I would say that we dare not appeal to Jesus (“for the poor you always have with you”) and say that the plight of the poor is a constant in society, regardless of the political and economic system of the day.

On the contrary, I challenge people of faith to be critics of the status quo. Follow the lead of the prophets and bring the highest principles of your tradition, not the values and structures of the status quo, to the debate. Rather than try to “solve the problem of poverty” acknowledge that whatever political/economic system is in place, some will be poor, some will be prosperous, and some will rise to the top and enjoy wealth.

The challenge of the faithful is to continue to examine the structures and dynamics of the status quo for the ways, intended and unintended, that confer advantages on some and disadvantages on others. See if the economic system of the day is designed to form and perpetuate a permanent underclass whose labor is available for exploitation by the wealthy and powerful. And finally, ensure that the political process gives equal access and equal voice to the concerns and needs of poor, the prosperous, and the wealthy.

A postscript for the church: For those of us called to ministry, it can be a subtle, but real temptation to be caught in the trap of trying to solve the problems of the poor. See Henri Nouwen’s treatment of the Temptations of Jesus (Downward Mobility, The Selfless Way of Christ, Sojourners Magazine). He finds in Jesus’ response to the temptations to do something relevant, something spectacular, and something powerful and influential, the true calling of Christians: to be faithful to the highest calling of our tradition.

As we try to find ways to respond to the panhandler at our door, I think much wisdom can be found in the narrative of Acts 3 in which a beggar confronts Saint Peter at the temple asking for alms. Peter says “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee.” (Acts 3:6, KJV)   It may be tempting to think that preaching the Gospel and maintaining a prophetic critique of the status quo isn’t “doing” anything about the plight of the poor. On the contrary, keeping the ethics of our tradition in the forefront of the minds of the people and constantly looking for ways to make a more just society is “silver and gold” enough. It is “doing” what we are called and uniquely qualified to do.