24 December 2010

A Very Few Words

This being Christmas Eve, which (despite the spleen of evangelical Christians) is about way more than Jesus, I have just a few things to share before appropriately focusing on family and faith.


1. Read this passage by C. Joshua Villines from the "Religion Dispatches" website. Excellent splenectomy for those mentioned above.


2. Read A Christmas Carol, which for me is still the best theology of the day there is. Note I said "read." It is short, excellent, and far better than any filmed version.


3. Browse the resources I have compiled via my church website. I even recommend my own volume of short stories.


"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a Good night!"

15 December 2010

Just Resting My Eyes

Yep, it's been a while since I dropped you a line. The holiday thing is a lot of work, good work, but a lot nonetheless. And our stocking was made even fuller this week as we now have three memorial services to prepare before Christmas Eve.

Now, I want to stomp around about the new tax bill, but Bernie Sanders did that far better than I ever could. He is a senator after all. But then I ran into this thoughtful piece by David Leonhardt, which picks up on a theme I articulated in the UUWorld back in 2006. I felt better, more expansive.

This law should it pass, thought I today, is but the next law in a series of laws that will come and go. There is no last word on taxes or jobs.

It is not right to protect the very rich, especially in the despicable way it wraps the uber-rich in the mantle of being really just middle class 'plus.' And because it is unfair to single out one group to carry more of a burden, the rich being somewhat afflicted you see, and therefore not unlike slaves or immigrants who were made to do more work than the others. All Americans are equal, right? And in these difficult times we need a sense of unity, and so everyone should be treated the same when it comes to taxes. Shoulder to shoulder, right?

(Breath in, breathe out. Aum.)

I'm enjoying my equanimity this evening so let me take the high ground instead.

Unquestionably, the immense disparity of the have-a-whole-lots and have-a-lot-lesses is not only morally perilous it is probably socially dangerous, as we now have a greater gulf between the wealthy and the poor than those backward central American nations with their semi annual coups and rotating juntas.

There will be another law, a better one perhaps. As one who feels deeply the tragic algebra of power, back to fabled Oedipus and Croesus, I have absolute faith in the law of Compensation, as Emerson called it (although I do not share his view of it). We will push back to the monied interests eventually. But like a spring being coiled, the longer it takes the more intense the eventual reaction.

That, to me, is what government is for. It governs the steam engine of society, if you will. When it gets too hot, it lets off steam before the whole thing blow up. When it is too cool it adds energy to make sure the engine does not come to a halt. And the art is keeping it from going from one extreme to another. Who would use a train that went from 0 t0 60 and back again, over and over?

So be of good heart, friends. The law is bad, but there will be another. If we are wise, that is. If not, 'fasten your seat belts. We're in for a bumpy ride.'

(Apologies to Bette Davis, and sorry for the mixed metaphor.)

07 December 2010

Try This, Warren

So Mr. Buffet, you say you should pay more taxes. I agree.

Sadly, our Solons and sages in DC think not. They believe more taxes is wrong, forever and ever. Amen. (This principle amounts to a theology, you see)

But I have an idea. As a sensible Midwestern fellow (with gobs of money) you are the best person to share this with. And the best part is that its easy.

Send in more money.

When you write that year end check to the Lords of Misrule (the IRS, get it. Congress is better described as a Confederacy of Dunces) add in what they would not. As I recall, it was 4%. I have no idea what your income was, but I am guessing it was above $250,000, so just figure another 4% and send it along with whatever you owe at the lower 35%

Write a separate check, and put a little note on the memo line about where it should go. If you don't they will think it's an overpayment or a prepayment for 2012. So make sure you write a separate check.

But that's only the first step. Tell your fellow rich friends. Start with Bill Gates - he knows you and owes you - and round up your fellow tycoons to pledge to send in the extra money. Get a few hundred lined up, enough to make a really big dent in the $60 billion that would have been collected if Congress had actual courage.

Now buy a full page ad in every daily paper in the US (they could use the ad revenue anyway) and say something like this:

"We are asking our fellow rich Americans to join us in doing for the country what our elected leaders would not do. Send in 4% more than you owe in taxes. Perhaps Congress feared us or wanted to please us, but we think the money can do more good for the country than it can do for us. After all, we have all the houses, cars, boats, and power we need or should have. But $60 billion could -

- triple federal funding for medical research.
- provide Universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, with relatively small class sizes.
- fund much larger troop surge in Afghanistan, raising spending by 60 percent from current levels.
- create a national infrastructure program to repair and upgrade roads, bridges, mass transit, water systems and levees.
- allow a 15 percent cut in corporate taxes.
- provide twice as much money for clean-energy research as suggested by a recent bipartisan plan.
- provide free college, including room and board, for about half of all full-time students, at both four- and two-year colleges.
create a $500 tax cut for all households.

(from the NYTimes, "Week In Review," December 5, 2010)


Publish the names of those who have promised to do this, AND the names of all the others you know you could.

And run this ad every day until people know you and Gates friends will not stop until you reach $60 billion. Add in new folks, like signing a petition, but this one everybody can see every day as it grows. Let America know which ultrarich think they need and deserve their wealth.
Call them out. You have enormous power, but not over Congress. Your power is over friends and fellow rich folks. Use it.

27 November 2010

The Promised Answer

I said I had the answer to gridlock in DC, but to explain it we need to go to Greece.


This here pile of stones is part of that ancient agora I mentioned a few days ago. Nothing to look at, and no great event took place here. There is a marker there, hard to read and in Greek, that says it was the location of the Boule, the group that essentially ran Athens. Five hundred men from each of the ten families or demes, each served a year and no one could serve more than twice.

What got my attention, though, was that this body could not pass laws on its own. Laws had to be approved by the larger assembly of citizens, call the ecclesia (from which we get the word ecclesiastical).

The ecclesia was too large to create laws, numbering 6000, but it had the authority to approve or deny laws proposed by the boule.

This is what got me thinking. Right now, our constitution expects the House and the Senate to create laws. Two centuries ago when the senate had thirty senators and the house around 100, this was a lot easier. Partly because life was slower and simpler, but equally because it is much easier for a small group to create things than a large group.

If a camel is a horse built by a committee, then a law written by the legislature is guaranteed to be a monstrosity. No matter who is in charge, which party, or what the purpose of the law is, everyone will have to be included in some way which means it will be swollen and complex.

I will also grant, as my conservative friends observe, that elaborate and complicated laws are unhealthy. The more clauses and sections there are the more bureaucrats are needed to enforce them, and the more lawyers to dispute them, and the more forms to be filed and so on.

What to do?

Change the rules. Require all laws to be drafted by the Senate, and approved by the House. Give the smaller group the job of writing laws, and the larger group the power to approve or disapprove the proposed law.

Other things would have to change, too, I know. Right now all spending bills must originate in the House. That's one that has to change, for sure. And maybe we should change terms to ten years and limit them two terms. My personal preference would be to bar lawyers from serving at all - talk about a conflict of interest - but you get the idea.

I think that asking those who are not subject to electoral tides every two years, who have to collaborate with others to get anything done, who are not chosen by districts that may be heavily industrial or agricultural or urban or rural, is better for creating laws that affect the whole nation. Conversely, giving the House the duty to approve or disapprove reminds the Senate that they are not in charge of the country but only to see that its rules are fair and accountable.

Yes, I know that changing the rules will not make people noble or smart. But I also know that the constitution was written for a nation vastly smaller and slower than the one we have. Preserving the purpose of the structure is more important than preserving its forms, despite what the Supremes say. Once, state houses chose senators. Nowhere does it allow for buying land like the Louisiana Purchase. But somehow these, and other changes have not destroyed it. Maybe the reason we have gridlock now is not because people are worse but because the rules we have cannot serve us as they once did or the purpose for which they were written.

Trying to operate modern America right now is like putting new wine in old bottles. If you don't get the reference, you can read about it here.

25 November 2010

Commie Pinko Pilgrims

Yep, those people with the funny hats and blunderbusses were commies, saith the John Stossel and Rep. Todd Akin. But they learned their lesson and returned to good old Christian Capitalism. Meanwhile, over at the loopy lefty NYTimes, Kate Zernike traces this midrash through its many twists and turns. Do read them both, in that order if you wish to keep your appetite.

Were it not so grim in its influence I would laugh at this argument because the whole Thanksgiving story is a sham. Not the pilgrims didn't have the feast or that there is no such think as Thanksgiving, but the celebration we observe is purely secular, and ultimately quite pagan.

Long before Europeans set foot in the Americas natives had done much the same thing in our Great lakes region, a custom called the ghost supper. Further south the festival of El Dia de los Muertos resembles thanksgiving more than Halloween. Back in Europe, harvest festivals, necessary because some foods had to be consumed for lack of storage and preservation, had no Christian or national meaning. People just did them.

If we were serious about making this a real commemoration of Pilgrim pride and national gratitude we would do it like they did - as a community event. We would go to church and listen to long prayers and even longer sermons and maybe then sit down in large groups with an especial effort to invite guests. Think potluck supper. Indeed, before 1863, thanksgiving days were understood to be days of prayer and worship not days of eating and celebrating.

As it is, our Thanksgiving is now about family not nation, about eating not praying, about merriment not worship. And this, I believe, is just fine. Let's admit we are pagans about this, chuck the whole pilgrim thing out for lots of reasons, and just be grateful - something that does not need politics or preachers to happen.

Good food, good meat, good God, let's eat!

23 November 2010

I Have The Answer!

... to political gridlock. Really.

But I owe you a glimpse of my trip to Greece, which is fast receding from memory. While I am disposed to telling you of my trip day by day, I will fast forward from my visit to the acropolis on the day after I arrived to the second to last day I was there. I went to the ancient agora or marketplace. They call is the ancient one to distinguish it from the Roman era agora. That gives you a sense of how old they mean. Think 2500 years.



The view to the left is toward the best preserved ancient Greek temple in the world, one devoted to Haephestus, the god of metallurgy and stuff. Between the temple and me are assorted ruins of government offices, about which I will speak later. But this is just a cool view, even on a cloudy day.

As you can see on the right, there are still walls of the interior 'cella' which enclosed the statue. And you can see how the temple is supported by columns inside as well as around the outside. The lattice work is part of the original roof, but the original frieze (the carved bas reliefs above the inner row of columns) has been removed to protect them. This is a modern replica.


I add the other picture to show how the columns have shifted over the years. They are actually made from sections called drums, which are stacked up as you can see. As Greece is known for earthquakes (The whole Mediterranean basin has this gift) over time tremors have likely shaken the columns enough to do this. You should know that the Greeks had no know-

ledge of cement or mortar. They simply hold together by artful use of the physics of force and friction.


But as impressive as this was and is. A far more imposing place was almost abandoned. Nary a soul was back in that corner of the place and even I did not know it was there. But along the old street of the marble workers, shown below, is also what remains of the ancient prison.

Why does this matter? Because it is likely the place where Socrates was imprisoned and in which he took the famous dose of Hemlock. For those who revere Plato and Aristotle, who think the golden age of Athens truly shaped the world, this is the epicenter.

It is sobering to think that Socrates was convicted for telling the truth, something that one would think would be celebrated not condemned. But it would happen again four hundred years later in Jerusalem. The more things change...





18 November 2010

GIT

It means Geezer In Training, which I prefer to 'senior moment.' I felt it this morning as I strained to remember the book review from the NYTimes on October 31 that mentioned the loss of a genuine American "Left." The point of the reviewer was that without a genuine ideological left wing that had some heft, the Democratic Party has no clear purpose.

Flash! My mind recalled that Liberal Religion, of which I am an adherent, has been defined by the historian/ethicist Gary Dorrien as a mediating movement that believed both Christianity and modernity could and must co-exist. What if the Democratic/Liberal party exists to do something very similar, to mediate the claims of the ideological and left and right and propose a very Anglican 'via media'?

In our very conservative times this may seem preposterous. The Democratic Party is routinely painted with commie red. But they are far from those who a century ago really were socialists. Back in the prudish Edwardian era the Socialist Party of America won nearly 1,000,000 votes in 1912, and again 1920. And yet it was the Democratic Party under Roosevelt that injected a little socialism into a reeling economy and perhaps saved capitalism as a result. I know there is disagreement about whether it worked technically, but I believe it worked socially as it popped the balloon of fanaticism that was growing in the struggles of that era.

Two generations later Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky and Michael Harrington were redefining socialism and left-wing thought in books and articles read both widely and openly. But the clarity and urgency of the early 20th century was now gone. Today, there is nothing like that in American politics. Left wing politics is a parlor sport like playing Botticelli.

The reasons why belong to historians and analysts, not bloggers. My point is that because there is no real left any more - none that has as weight or power - the Democratic Party has no mediating role to play in the political landscape. It is inherently a party of means not ends, of compromise not principle.

And I say this as a Democrat, a political 'Anglican' who knows that purity of principle is the path of tyranny. Both on the left and right, the righteousness of the true liberal and the true conservative tends toward a political puritanism. Today's Tea Party is an obvious manifestation. Their demands to slash the budget and taxes and government are attractive because of their clarity and simplicity. Especially in turbulent and troubling times we have an even greater hunger for clarity and simplicity than usual. But the price will be very high if we actually follow that path.

The Democratic Party, though, is constitutionally unable to respond because it is the mediating party. It cannot be the Left because it seeks balance not perfection.

The remedy is to recreate the Left. I mean not an intellectual, deconstructed, post-modern, contextualized left. That is pathetic politically; truly suited to be the straw men of right wing demagogues. I mean an old fashioned Eugene V. Debs, labor and worker and proletarian Left. Not because I believe they are good and the right is bad, but because without a real alternative to Tea Party Conservatism there is no middle ground. We will become a one party nation, which is indisputably anti-democratic and eventually tyrannical. For the Democrats to find new life we must first give new life to the Old Left.

"Lazarus, come out," said Jesus to the corpse at Bethany. "Socialism, come out" I say. We need Debs again, and soon.

16 November 2010

Greece or News?

This time I am going with the news. Not a big deal, though. Just a very cool article from the Sunday NYTimes of October 31. Made me think in new ways. Always a good sign! Give it a read. And tell me what you think.

13 November 2010

Poltergeist?

No, but I am back (and excuse the ancient cinema reference.)
Touched down on Wednesday evening at 930 pm, which means I had been up for 22 hours, and in the air for 14 hours. When I left the terminal in GR it was the first fresh air since I entered Eleftherios Airport (aerodromeio) outside Athens. By the way, they even have ancient statues at the airport. They turn up anywhere you dig I think.

To prove I was there, behold yours truly alongside the actual Parthenon. We both look a little worn, but it is getting better. Yes, it will take a few years (another forty at the rate they are going) but for something that's 2500 years old that's not even 2% of its age.

It is astonishing in scope, vision, mass, and form. The new Museum is a fitting and fabulous partner in revealing the life of the acropolis. The Parthenon itself is just part of the place, and in some ways less impressive than the Erectheum and the Proplylaea.

And the acropolis also includes structures on the slopes of the place, back to an enclosed spring used by the first Mycenean developers of the place. The spring is no longer accessible to the public but little shrines to Aphrodite and others have left their marks in niches in the rocks and smoky caves that are as evocative as the great buildings on top.


For a fan like me, one or even two hours is not enough. Knowing I
may not be back again, I arrived at 9 am and left after 5, including the museum.
For me, it is not only the sights, but the sensations like the bright sun and the feeling of the wind and the smell of dust. While groups, many of them each with their leader talking in wonderfully accented English, trouped endlessly about, I sampled the hard water of the one drinking fountain and sat in the little bit of shade I could find. As tourists limbered about I translated a little plaque honoring the liberation of the acropolis from the Nazis in 1942. And when I could no longer pretend to have anything left to see, I sat on the steps at the foot of the Propylaea for a long time and tried to fix in my memory as much as I could before climbing down the slope and back into the city around it.














07 November 2010

So Where Have You Been?

... On the road for a a few days. I am in Athens Greece on their election day which may be as important to them as the US electionwas to us, maybe more. Politics was invented here, including the word politics, which comes from the Greek word 'polis' for city. I am therefore in the city that is the birthplace of politics, Athens.

Mostly, I am seeing the places here and near here that have been part of my intellectual world for most of my life. Having read Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Hesiod, Euripdes, Sophocles, Herakleitos, and other ancient folks, I wanted to see a bit of what they saw. Put some flesh on those abstract intellectual bones.

I could write very lengthily, but let me say that on Friday, as the sun was setting, I finally found my way onto the hill of the Pnyx. I was alone there, looking at the rough remaining ruins of the Bema, the orator's spot, the place where democracy reared its head and spoke its first words with names like Pericles. One quarter mile away was the Acropolis, the high city, with its temples. Slightly closer was the Areopagus where Paul held forth and won his first Greek convert, Dionysus the Areopagite.

Those who ask if I am on vacation are right only - ONLY - if that means I am not at my paying job. But for me, this is a pilgrimage, with all that word's power and effort. Alone, with no company but my own thoughts and all but unable to communicate because Greek is hard they talk fast; after walking around the acropolis for hours and through the new museum; with little to eat or drink; to arrive there at sunset by myself and behold in one place the trinity of Greek culture - Paganism, Democracy, Christianity - was perfect.

An that was just one day. By the time I get back I will need a vacation to recover from all this.

23 October 2010

Leftovers

Life has been quite busy lately, which means I have had no time to write a decent post. What makes this worse is that there have been lots of things to write about. Instead of whining about it I'll just point you to the stuff that makes me think and let you do it on your own.

1. Halloween has my corner of Michigan in a tizzy because it falls on a Sunday. The pious, of which we have many, find it irreligious. You can read about it if you like. To me, this is straining at gnats. Halloween has lost 99 and 44/100 of its pagan meaning to 99 and 44/100 of the people. There is as much paganism in Christmas, with its trees and elves and flying sleighs, but these same folks do not ask us to do Santa on another day. Actually, that makes more sense. St. Nicholas' Day is December 6, but obviously that won't do because it would leave only two shopping weeks. God is good, but gold is better.

2. A major reason people seek a religious community is that they have kids and suddenly they are asking about God and stuff. Bruce Feiler writes about this in a recent NYTimes essay. Read it. Oddly, these conversations were quite rare in our house, and maybe just maybe, that was because religious life in our house was not unusual. Religion was part of their life from the outset, and Sunday worship was what we all did. When they did have questions it came from within their experience not outside it. So when parents ask me when to start bringing kids to church I say ours came at one week. Make it part of your family life, like eating dinner together and about as informal as well, and the whole issue becomes a lot easier.

3. For those stewing about income inequity, like me, it is helpful to get decent information. Lucky for me, and therefore you, there was this article written by Paul Sullivan. Read that too. The whole question, including the dreaded notion of "income redistribution" takes on a new aspect when you do.

4. Finally, an obituary caught my eye this week, so unusual and so intriguing, I just had to share it with you. Eric Joisel was a master origamist, whose paper sculptures are to paper cranes as Picasso is to coloring books. Read and sigh.

16 October 2010

The Real Enemy

Yes, the walls will come tumbling down come Election Day. The plaster and cardboard promise of the Obama administration has melted in the relentless rain or realism and republicanism.

So the angry right is telling us.

Over and over.

In commercials that will not stop.

There is no doubt that we truly do have the best country that money can buy. And yes that is a deeply sardonic and ironic sentence.

Yet it would not be possible without the lofty left as well, who "look down in high disdain" as a hymn I know says. By huffing and puffing about weakness and compromise, they have added their own sapper's effect to the conservative battering ram.

We have a perfect, if entirely understandable, example of how The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good. I am not a Rolling Stone reader, but a FB friend (shout out to Marie!) posted this link to a new article there. I commend it to you and urge you share it with others.

We seem to live in a political age where there are only two possibilities - perfection or damnation. It's as if every football play has to be a "hail mary" for the end zone and if it fails you condemn them for cowardice or failure.

Politics is a series of short runs and screen passes. (Yes, I did see the MSU game. GO GREEN!) And this president has been doing just that for two years. And most of the points have been field goals not touchdowns. Sure it would be great to see a big play. But you win on points not plays.

This president is winning. I for one will keep cheering.

11 October 2010

More Lazy Gardening Tips

Fall is falling now. The giant lovely maple beside the street is slowly letting go of its near 100,000 leaves. The hosta are curling up and getting brown. But the weather is warm this week, and so I had better do a token hour or two. First time in two or three weeks. Maybe more.

So on Saturday I went to shul and then came home to break the sabbath for two hours. First I pull up the sunflowers. They toppled over some time ago, from the squirrels climbing up to filch their seeds. They get close to the top and their weight is too much for the stalk which then crimps and folds. Sad sight.

Then it is the overgrown parsley which is crowding the rosemary. Various weeds had invaded, so that I barely see the one red leaf lettuce trying to bolt. Thank goodness we planted lots of pansies along the edge, but even they are getting louche and lazy now.

My asparagus is not yet brown, but when it does - off with their heads. Right now they look like a really ratty patch. On the other end of the bed my alpine strawberries are looking decent, but I am not sure I am willing to do all the work required for more than a few berries. But none of my non human neighbors like them, so the small crop I get from indolence is all mine. All I did was plant them. Very cool.

Some days ago a great wind sent dozens of green tennis balls, walnuts I think, from the tree next door. The squirrels have pried them open and left the debris all over the lawn. What slobs! I rake them up, along with the uprooted sunflowers, black eyed susans, milkweeds and other unwanted but eager squatters I have plucked. Then it is time to cut down the woody stalks of the hosta, asiatic lilies. My arms ached from raking them over the the side of the garage.

This morning I fought the ivy that grows through the fence from my neighbor, pulled down some other creeper that is crawling up my garage - AGAIN! Over ripe tomatoes squish underfoot. My two tomato plants keep on growing. They are so thick that fruit hides under the vines. That sounds like a shame, except that I cannot consume them fast enough. I have given away more than half of the crop. What fun that was.

A few more hosta stalks, a hair cut for the vinca and the lemon lily leaves, and I am done. I could do more, but as I said before, this is a relationship with other living things. When cutting the aim is not control but compromise. Holding it like my hair cutter does my own locks, the shears only trim. Trying for presentable not perfection.

When the frost comes the tomato will die back and I'll call the local dump truck guy to haul all of it to the town compost pile. Yes, I should do it myself. But as a lazy gardener that is simply one step too far.

05 October 2010

Who's Rich?

Nobody wants to pay taxes, with the possible exception of Warren Buffett and Oliver Wendell Holmes. The latter, a solid New England Republican, famously opined, "I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization."

Because no one likes them, the question of who should pay how much is always loaded. Hence the furor over the misnamed Bush Tax Cuts. (They are misnamed because presidents do not make laws. For the same reason there is no such thing as Obamacare either. And they are not tax cuts but tax rates. But politicians like to talk about cutting taxes not setting them, and the incentive to rehabilitate the former president is another motivation.) Ought we continue with these rates, or should they be raised? The furor is not over whether average Americans (usually called middle class by politicians) should pay more, but whether above average Americans ought to pay more. You know the argument so I am not repeating it here.

What makes me think about it is something I read in the September 30 NY Times. It was a fascinating article because it considered something I have long thought about - Who's Rich? Go ahead and read it, but my interest is in settling this matter.

We know who is poor; namely, those who do not have enough to be secure in the basic needs of life like food and clothing and shelter (a short list). That can be calculated by looking at the costs for such things. But when do we go from enough to more than enough?

Peter Singer, the ethicist at Princeton and David Platt, a young evangelical preacher, both believe enough is around $50,000. More than that is more than you need. Recent polling tells us that happiness maxes out around $75,000. Not only does that make some sense because it deals with contentment not just survival, it allows for a little more cushion. The fight in Congress is over whether $250,000 is more than enough, considerably more than is rationally and religiously and emotionally necessary, according to Singer and Platt and Gallup.

My interest is moral. I say being rich is a moral state, a status relative to other people in society. As a cleric, I know that being rich is morally suspect. Just read a holy book or two and the opinion is always against wealth. One of the few things the world's religions tend to agree on, it turns out.

But one need not be religious to recognize the moral danger of wealth. As I mentioned in a previous post, money=power. When one person has much more than another, that person has more power than another. In a democracy, great inequities of power are dangerous to society. If the well being of society is a moral matter (and morality is by definition primarily about social relations) and democracy and equality are important elements in a good society, then wealth is a deeply moral matter.

But for precisely that reason it cannot be set by a number like poverty because wealth is always measured by how much one has compared to how little others do. If everyone had $1,000,000,000 no one would be rich at all. Being rich means have more than most people.

But how much more makes one rich? Twice the poverty rate? Thrice $50,000? Four times $75,000? About 73% of American households earn $75,000 or less. (No wonder we're such a cranky country!) That means one in four Americans have more than enough to make them happy.

But, you say, it takes more to live in New York than in New Buffalo. Rightly so. But not all people who make more than $75,000 are in New York or San Francisco or in Beverly Hills (90210!) or the other pricey enclaves of the rich.

But, you say again, they have larger bills to pay. Maybe so, but those bills came from choices made because the money was available, not the other way around. Morally, neither factor is mitigating.

But as one who lives above the happiness threshold financially, I know I do not feel rich when compared to the wealthy on TV and in the news. The income curve gets steeper and steeper. You may have heard that something less than 6% of the population owns or controls 25% of the wealth in the nation. In fact, almost everyone who is rich compared to average Americans is poor compared to the upper echelons of income and wealth. As the Wikipedia article on wealth distribution puts it: "While households in the top 1.5% of households had incomes exceeding $250,000, 443% above the national median, their incomes were still 2200% lower than those of the top .01% of households."

This leads me to believe that my initial analysis years ago still holds water, morally. That is, if you make more in a year than the average worker earns in a lifetime you are rich, in the morally suspect sense of the term. You have not just more than enough. You have too much - too much money and power for the well being of a free and democratic and therefore egalitarian society. It may be fine in a monarchy or an aristocracy, but in a democracy it is too much.

At the moment, that moral cusp is about 2 million. $45,000 times 45 years. I think tax rates ought to exceed 60% by the time you cross that line. It may seem wrong to you, if you have that money, and maybe it is in some personal sense. But the greater evil is that so much power and money reside in one mere fallible mortal.

Great wealth is a danger to a free society. But we don't hear our leaders saying it? Why?

Because they only get elected using money from those who far more than enough. You might say that today the rich do not buy civilization; they buy politicians. But that's another post. This one is already too long.

Discuss amongst yourselves.

29 September 2010

In Praise of Lazy Gardening

Over the years I have kept several gardens, which as we all know are spiritually and morally fortifying.

Few things enjoy such broad if not unanimous approval. What could be more humane and decent than kneeling in the soil, packing dirt gently around tender stalks, sprinkling water while standing in a nearly yogic pose, and seeing the abundance of flowers and fruits that come in due time.

While I have kept several gardens, I have never been really successful, though. My instinct for design is minimal. My commitment to weeding shrivels in the heat. As much as I find it rewarding, I find other things rewarding too, and thus my gardens tend to be seedy.

This year was no exception. Our sunflowers grew and then bent under the weight of their heads. Our string beans and peas were quickly gobbled by rabbits. My alpine strawberries should be thinned. I have no idea what to do with my asparagus to prepare it for next year when it should be ready to eat. My only success, and a doozy it is too, are my two tomato plants which went berserk alongside the fence, producing over 5 dozen tomatoes. I am thinking of naming it Audrey.

Now, do not tell me how to do better. I am not sure I want to. That's because I have concluded that gardening can become as unnatural as anything else. Those well organized rows are not natural. The tidy weed free beds are not natural. Watering and composting are done to human standards not the plants themselves.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that vegetable gardening can be more natural, and less work.

Take the rabbits. I thought about ways to prevent them from eating my lettuce and peas and beans and then thought, "why?" They were here before I was, even before we as a people were. The seeds cost me little, and if they eat them I can go to the store or farmers market and buy more. They cannot.

I should have staked my tomato plant to keep it from sprawling. But that's for me not the plant. Some fruit have fallen and rotted, but I toss them on the compost pile knowing I cannot eat all that I have.

Think of it as truly democratic gardening, where other species are taken into account - rabbits, bees, plants. I want to add to the life in my little patch by planting things. But once planted, they become part of the community around me. They are not there solely for my benefit, but for our mutual benefit.

I am not going off the deep end. I still flush the silverfish that crawls on my tub. The squirrels leave chestnuts and crab apples that I have to sweep up or track into the house. I do mow my lawn and weed my flower beds.

All I am saying is that we need not be devoted gardeners to be good gardeners. A little indolence and messiness may even be morally better than the charming plots arranged to our small human tastes and ends.

Or maybe I just need an excuse.

21 September 2010

Recovering Addicts

That's what we are, economically.

For a generation, the nation was pumped upon on the steroids of cheap money, all but printed by banks and other financial houses. Then, as the supply of cheap money depended more and more on Collateralized Debt Obligations and other substitutes for real money, somewhat like cocaine cut with sudafed, we began to feel weak and woozy. Our national high was crashing and we got a serious case of the financial DTs, and went through what every addict experiences when they go through withdrawal. It feels like you're gonna die, as bad as any real illness.

Eventually, though, the drug clears your system and you are on the mend. But for a very long time, you are weak. Recovery begins long before you actually feel better, and a long time before you feel good again.

We are told that the recession, the longest in modern history, ended in June of 2009. And people are asking, "Then why am I still unemployed?"

Because we fell so far that it will be a long time before recovery gets back to 'normal.' We've all had fevers and flus and remember when we felt the tide turn. We knew we were getting better, but you still stayed in bed and walked carefully and felt unsteady for a good while.

That's us. The longer the illness, the deeper you go, the further you have to come back. Worse, though as a nation we are recovering, for individual people the recession is all or none. You either have a good job or not.

For individuals or industries or even sections of the country the recovery is not certain at all. During the last big recession around 1981, I was a new clergyman in a small town in central Massachusetts. The closest city was ten miles away, with two large tool and die factories that dominated the local economy.

They never reopened. The companies cut their losses, closed the factories and focused on other places. A century before, other towns in New England shriveled up as the textile mills and shipyards and other industries of the mid 19th century died. During the dust bowl years of the 1930s the heartland towns in Nebraska and Kansas and South Dakota began their long and continuing death. Here in West Michigan the final chapter of the furniture industry coincided with the last downturn in 2000. It's not coming back. Neither will the juggernaut of automobiles.

So yes, the country is on the mend, very slowly. But for people and places in the country it will take much longer than the country at large, and for some there will never be a recovery. One might think, in lofty abstraction, that people will up and move. They did before and will again, but are we ready to slice off states like limbs, cut off cities like warts, slough off citizens like dead cells?

Yes, it may be inevitable - but should it be policy?

Just sayin'

11 September 2010

World War II Vets....

rarely talked about their experience. The closest I ever came was a man who landed at Normandy a day or two after the initial assault.

"You saw the movie, 'Saving Private Ryan?' he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"It was like that."

That was all. Saying more would say too little and too much. We sat for a long important moment. His silence said more than his words.

September 11 was not like that. While there was nobility and courage and death and destruction, it was nothing like war, or movies about war.

I can say that because it all happened less than a mile from my home and work. I saw it, heard it, felt it, smelled it, was covered by the falling dust of pulverized buildings and people, organized memorials, and performed funerals. One was a British fellow married to an Indonesian Muslim, whose family recited the Al Fatihah prayer in my church that October. I marched with other clergy in honor of the hook and ladder company from our neighborhood that was wiped out. Their truck was the one in the NY Daily News photo seen going over the Brooklyn Bridge toward the towers before they collapsed. My son visited their house on a school trip in first grade.

(You can read about my experience as a near bystander by clicking the link on the right, "The Days Grow Short." You will not find anything more honest or real than that, for those of us who were in NYC then and the days thereafter.)

September 11 was not like Normandy or even Pearl Harbor because it was not an act of war.

It was simply, horribly, cruelly, despicably, murder. Mass murder.

And that's how we should have treated it, and should now. Treating it as an act of war actually ennobles the criminals, making them into warriors for a cause.

I know why we called it a war. It makes the dead more than mere victims. No one wants to think their father or brother or son or daughter or wife or sister was 'just a victim.' We want them not to have 'died in vain,' that is, for no reason.

But they did die for no reason, meaning one they chose to serve. None of them were soldiers willingly putting their lives on the line for cause or country. In all honesty, brutal honesty, they died for no more reason than those caught in an earthquake or tsunami.

Unless we count the reason the criminals gave. By calling it a war instead of a crime, we paradoxically gave the criminals precisely what they wanted: importance. See how calling it war has done honor to the victims nine years later?

I have said too much.

Unlike the man who went to war.

09 September 2010

When Ignorance is Just

This morning the folks an CNN were talking about how awful it was that the media were giving so much attention to pastor Jones and his 'bonfire of depravity.'

You heard me right, they were reporting on how too many people were reporting on it.

Years and years ago, when we all had flowers in our hair and stuff, a popular anti-war phrase was "What if they gave a war, and nobody came?" Well, what if Jones gave a Koran burning and nobody came? What if the media just did not pay attention.

I know, the horse has left that barn, but the event is still to come and thus they can choose not to. Better, they can all agree not to. And I am sure local leaders and clergy would be delighted to set up a cordon at some distance that would prevent any media from observing it.

It could happen. The media could decide their role as public tribune trumped their role as private business. They could agree that sometimes their attention is oxygen that feeds the flames.

They could, they really could.

But they won't.

06 September 2010

Labor Day!

My son marched in the parade in Detroit. I went down to the Laborfest on our riverside. Thought about my short tenure as a member of the International Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Workers (railroad track hand) and my wife who walked the line in Chicago when she was part of the teacher's union thirty years ago.


Today, both unions and their respect have dwindled. My current home state of Michigan is among the most unionized in the country, 18%. In 1970, over 33% of the country was organized. Right now, we are debating a "right to work" law, which from what I can tell will make unions less powerful. These laws have been put in place over a number of years, following provisions of the Taft Hartley Act of 1947.


There are costs and benefits to be had one way or the other, but there is no doubt that "right to work laws" could also be accurately called "right not to join a union" laws. Since 'right to work' is a phrase much like 'right to life,' meaning it has a bias in the name, I suggest you ponder an overview from our friends at Wikipedia rather than let me explain it all.


That's because, as you might have detected, I am somewhat biased myself toward Labor. I grew up in a management household, you should know. Dad was a suit at the old B&O railroad for nine years, and for the Grand Trunk for five more, and then a consultant for railroad management for thirteen. But he grew up in the Depression, and mom was a telephone operator for a while, and in our house Walter Reuther and John L. Lewis and Samuel Gompers and A. Philip Randolf were admirable. We may have been management, but we respected Labor.


That respect is gone, tarnished by corruption yes, but mostly by our current entrepreneurial, Ayn Rand saturated, neo-Gilded Age climate. Yes, it shot itself in the foot in many ways, but corporate power has grown while Labor has shrunk. And as corporate power has grown and their influence has grown with it, so has our respect for corporate power, almost fawning. When the banks that fund them boiled over we ran to resupply them with money and called them "too big to fail," but as unions have shrunk with outsourcing and downsizing we have not run to sustain them, though the well being of thousands of average citizens, people more like you and me than those in the mahogany paneled penthouses of the banks, climbed down the ladder. In a sense they were the rungs on which the entrepreneurs climbed up.


Sorry for the rant. But there is an aroma of injustice in all this that I cannot wave away. If we believe the market is like gravity, implacable and amoral, then why hobble unions, which after all are only organizing one of the raw materials of business? If regulating business is bad, why is regulating unions OK? Aren't they part of the market as much as any MBA?


The basic principle from which I operate is that power=money. One is a form of the other. Corporations are in business to make money. Fine. And they use that money to obtain power, be it political or personal. Unions are in the business of using power to get money. By organizing workers in workplaces they use power to get more money in the form of wages and health benefits and so on. That too should be fine.

But it's not. No doubt, unions over reached in their demands. But it is more urban legend than truth that union demands put the auto industry out of business. Everyone agrees that high demands by unions drove companies to outsourcing, right? Why do we not think that the enormous salaries paid to the favored few in Wall Street, their over reaching confidence in their knowledge and skill, drove us to the edge of another Depression.

Maybe we do, but the laws proposed to weaken them have themselves been weakened. Screams from the cashmere crowd sent legislators scurrying to salve their wounds. But when it came time to extending unemployment to those who cannot eat, we hesitated because it cost too much. And to help the unemployed we now want to weaken unions with 'right to work' laws.

This all sounds a little unfair to me. What's good for the boss is good for the worker, I say. Democracy and freedom need fairness. This recession is not being fair at all. And dealing with that, in my pink little head, is what government should be about.

01 September 2010

I Wanted to Kill It

but I didn't. The silverfish was crawling around the edge of the bathtub as I was shaving. Out of the corner of my eye I watched it; they move quickly you know and it could start crawling up my leg in no time.

Yuck yuck yuck.

Crawly things creep me out. Not all bugs, but those with rippling legs like silverfish and centipedes.

Yuck yuck yuck.

I wanted to kill it, but stopped this time. My gut was disgusted, but my brain said, "Hold on Fred, is your disgust reason to kill?"

Disgust apparently is, according to research into 'disgust studies,' (I am not making this up, as Dave Barry would say) our idea of what iks disgusting may not be as natural as we think. Read this intriguing article from the Boston Globe. It's long, but very worth it.

Long ago, when my mother-in-law was alive, I saw the danger of rationalizing our disgusts. She was a child of the south, for whom so called 'race mixing' was taboo. When it turned out a couple we knew were 'mixed' she opined that the thought of it made her sick. She was disgusted.

Disgust is a human reaction apparently born long ago when we had to be able to tell the difference between healthy food and dangerous food. Things bad for us made us recoil, shiver, stick out our tongues. It was a visceral reaction that evolution found useful.

But beyond recognizing things physically bad for us there is no scientific validity to disgust. All the other things we find naturally disgusting are learned. My mother-in-law was not exaggerating or lying, her disgust was real. But it was not natural. I feel not disgust at seeing 'mixed couples,' or 'gay couples' (also frequently said to inspire disgust). Am I clueless, or is it possible it simply is not naturally disgusting.

Like silverfish!

30 August 2010

Still Breathing?

Martin Luther Beck has come and gone. Still trying to get the taste out of my mouth.

Let me say instantly that the anger of people who follow Beck is real, especially the idea that something is not working right. What's bothering me is that what bothers them is not actually Muslims and Mexicans and Gays. It isn't even "government."

This is all a giant case of bait and switch.

Here's how I see it: What makes people angry and fearful is the sense that their lives are being changed without their knowledge or permission. We want society to be fair and open, for the rules to be fair and to know that they are applied fairly, that we can depend on certain things.

That has changed, and there is no lack of powerful people to tell you about it. That's the bait. They (Beck and company) want you to think that it is because of outsiders like Muslims and Mexicans, or minorities like gays and liberals, or conniving government flunkies. That's the switch.

They are not the problem.

What is?

At the risk of becoming a demagogue, I defer to those who know more than me and so you can blame them instead.

Let's start with Frank Rich, who speaks softly and carries a big anger.

He refers to Jean Meyer, whose article Rich references.

For something less pointed, try this article by Michael Hirsch, found in Newsweek.

If all of that fails to grab you where it matters, I leave it ultimately to the man who pulled no punches ever, may he rest in peace. (R rated language here folks, so be warned.)

27 August 2010

Breathe In, Breathe Out

Conspiracy literally means, to breathe together. I am not sure what I am writing exposes a conspiracy or is one, but here goes:

Muslims, Mexicans and Gays are enemies of America. If the news says anything, a fair portion of the country believes our security and liberty are under assault from Muslims, Mexicans and Gays.

Is this true? I don't think so, but what each of these issues has in common is that it arouses strong feelings that seem to me rooted in a fear that these things threaten our 'way of life.' Making them appear to be organized threats is what seems to be happening.

Based on a very quick comparison of three four major news organizations, one of them spends far more time and effort reporting on these issues than the others. Way more.

Here's my half hour of research, and take it for just that much.

Fox News has 29561 items tagged with 'ground zero mosque.' CBS has not even 300, unless you enter the term 'mosque' alone, which yields 2506 . PBS news hour lists less than 100, but it grows to 475 if likewise limited to 'mosque.'

Fox has 20242 items tagged 'illegal immigration.' CBS has 2767 if you limit it to immigration.

Fox has 13269 items tagged 'gay marriage.' CBS has 1951. PBS 324.

Now, I understand that Fox is bigger in market share than both, and runs news all day. So let me compare that to CNN:

'Ground zero mosque' results in 270. 'Mosque' alone 2939. 'Illegal immigration' gets 3213. 'immigration' alone 8446. And 'gay marriage' gets 1098.

In other words, Fox was generated between ten and twenty times as many items on these issues as any other type of broadcast network (network, public, cable).

Now, add in the News Corp's revealed support for the Republican Party, the mother of Fox News, and it makes this normally fair open minded fellow wonder whether there is more than news gathering at work here.

I am lousy at data based analysis, so do not take this as some sort of 'proof.' But I do know that the more you repeat something, the more people are going to think about it. Staying on message is a basic principle of political life. These topics at Fox News far outnumber the deficit (8694), taxes (9408) and even 'liberal' (8611). I cannot help but wonder why.

Lest you think I might be leaving out some other topic that gets more attention that even Muslims, Mexicans and Gays. There is at least one. It gets 43457 items.

Obama!

22 August 2010

Cookie Insights

Well, it is Sunday evening, not long before my bed time. I've taken part in worship, finished the last volume of Gary Dorrien's trilogy on the History of Liberal Theology in America, driven to East Lansing and back, picked a dozen tomatoes, taken out the recycling, and read most of the Sunday Times.

(That sounds like more than it felt like. I might feel better about my productivity if I made more lists!)

Anyway, my splendid spouse made up a batch of cookies just a while ago, from some refrigerated dough that has been lingering about. They came to twelve. Three of us are home.

All these facts are part of the shameful insight I had not ten minutes ago, which is prompting this post.

She, lovely woman in every sense, brought a small plate of cookies into my office to announce their availability. I thought they were for me, but she was carrying hers. Mine were still on the tray.

Same number, but distinctly smaller. That I noticed bothers me, that I care shames me. Where did this come from?

I know too well. As one of four children, the parceling of sweetmeats was fraught. In my childish mind, febrile with longing for whatever treat was in store, who had the larger portion was the favored child. Needless to say, mother and father were scrupulous in being fair. But "one cuts, the other chooses" does not satisfy the underlying problem. The mere fact of having to share the gustatory prize was what I found hard to swallow.

Every two years after I was born another child came home, and with each my horde of blessings was diluted. The juvenile zero sum game ran like an adding machine in my head. My net worth rose and sank according to the measure of cookies, cake, bed time privileges, and other measures of approval.

Though I have been out of my parent's home for forty years now, more than 2/3 of my life in fact, that childish imprimatur of value has never completely vanished. Nowadays I do not act on such puerile feelings, but they are still there.

Am I alone? Probably not. Truly, I am more neurotic than most, but is that because I still want the bigger cookies or because I am aware that I do and worry about it? (Just posing that question proves how neurotic I am. What can I say, it's a gift.) That we kids elbowed for the marginally bigger slice or portion tells me that at least they shared some notion of competing for the prize. That people seek fancy cars and large houses and other tokens of success tells me I am more typical than exceptional.

My point, though, is not how childish we all are but that if Socrates is right about the unexamined life being not worth living, we need to realize that the examined life does not consist of the serene contemplation of great thoughts. It is being ready to feel like a toddler, notice your the inner brat, stay in touch with all the now outgrown bits of the soul we formed in the messy world of childhood.

Like the appendix in our gut, they have no role to play in adult life, but if they get inflamed (by cookies or whatever might set you off) they can start a nasty spiritual infection.

Glad I nipped that one in the bud. Besides, my inner adult says, I can always buy more cookies!

21 August 2010

Whew!

Well, my last rant arrived in the nick of time, it seemed. Within days (if not hours) others chimed in - notably John Stewart - and wiser (and funnier) voices were raised in response to the craven demagoguery that made me fulminate a few days ago.

Thanks, those of you who chimed in here and on FB, sharing your own outrage along with mine. I doubt we turned the tide, but oceans are made of zillions of drops of which we were a few. It feels good to be on the side of the angels, especially when they prevail.

Since then, I was at a garden wedding where I met a man who some years ago urged me to share 'my outrage' in my preaching. I remembered that moment, and how when I did share my outrage at close range - meaning my outrage at churches and liberal religion as well as national politics and policies - he stopped coming to church.

Bad advice, I chuckled, as my outrage is deep and people in church do not want to be scolded. "Beware of what you ask for," someone famously said, "for you just might get it."

There's my dilemma, to be honest and passionate but also kind and hopeful.

Individuals need kindness and hope. Everyone, no matter how fortunate compared to others, feels vulnerable and fearful from time to time. Religion is supposed to offer strength in the face of those feelings.

But religion must also be about the world at large, about matters of right and wrong, justice and injustice. These are, by nature, discomfiting things that make us feel 'vulnerable and fearful' when we face them head on.

An old saw about journalism is that it should 'comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.' Here is one provenance of it, from my friends at Wikipedia:

As a journalist in the age of "muckraking journalism", (Finley Peter Dunne) was aware of the power of institutions, including his own. Writing as Dooley, Dunne once wrote the following passage cautioning against the power of the newspapers themselves: "Th' newspaper does ivrything f'r us. It runs th' polis foorce an' th' banks, commands th' milishy, controls th' ligislachure, baptizes th' young, marries th' foolish, comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable, buries th' dead an' roasts thim aftherward".
The expression has been borrowed and altered in many ways over the years:
Clare Booth Luce employed a variation of it in a memorable tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Several religious leaders (including one Archbishop of Canterbury) have called it the goal of religion.
Social activist "Mother" Mary Jones was once quoted as saying "My business is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."
A version showed up in a memorable line delivered by Gene Kelly in a great newspaper movie, Stanley Kramer's 1960 film, Inherit the Wind. Kelly (E.K. Hornbeck) says, "Mr. Brady, it is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable".

I was told that was the preacher's mission as well. What my teachers did not tell me is that the people in the pew are both afflicted and comfortable. They are both guilty and innocent, in need of love and judgment.

I see no way to get around this paradox, as a person or as a preacher. It may be the essential matrix of honest spiritual life. My only hope is that some of those I serve and lead come to see this paradox as well.

17 August 2010

Double, Double Toil and Trouble...

My Republican friends are determined to mix a caustic and destructive brew of inventive and innuendo, according to Carl Hulse in today's' NYTimes.

This is actually the original campaign theory of the Republican Party, which invoked the Civil War in campaigns a generation or more later. It came to be called 'waving the bloody shirt' and was often successful.

I call it demagoguery, which is to inflame the emotions of the people to manipulate them to your aims. The most successful exponents are those of the 1930s, Soviet or Fascist or Falangist or Nazi. By playing on fears and hatreds, leaders convince people in tough times that this or that group (Jews, Capitalists, Catholics, Mexicans, Muslims, Gays, Liberals) is dangerous and must be stopped.

I do not fear the ultimate paroxysms that Europe experienced. But as one whose faith community has been hounded in the past - a leader firebombed out of his house in England, another carted to Dachau, one or two burned at the stake - I know how easy it is to demonize a group that leaders label as 'different,' or 'foreign,' or 'degenerate,' or 'dangerous.'

What really galls me is that this whole mosque thing has been trumped up from the beginning and no one seems to notice. Except perhaps Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. Please, please, read his retrospective on how this 'issue' began as a non issue and was literally blown into one by outsiders.

Yes, outside agitators really did it, and no one is calling them on it. Not CNN, not ABC or NBS or CBS or PBS. Fox is not worth asking as the "Pravda," of the Republican Party. But that is the role of the press, isn't it? To call people to account when they play fast and loose with the truth.

Only when a 'disinterested party,' one without skin in the game to use a more modern term, speaks up will people listen. Where is Emile Zola now? Where is Edward R. Murrow? Where is Woodward or Bernstein?

Am I the only one to say "J'acccuse," to the rank and disgusting demagoguery and hate mongering of the Conservative powers that be? And you, the two score of so who read this little diatribe, what good can you do?

Trust me, the path of Martin Neimoller is very easy to tread.

14 August 2010

Discuss Amongst Yourselves

Just got home last night and am still cleaning up from travels. Weeded a bunch, picked some no-kidding good looking tomatoes, repaired my porch door, cleaned up my basement a little, read the newspaper, and rejoiced in my president's principled remarks about the (erroneously described) 'mosque at Ground Zero.'

Not only is it not "at" the site, but several blocks away, it is not a mosque but a community center, like the JCC or the YMCA. And for those who do not know, or choose not to remember, the dead whom this center will dishonor included Muslims, in fact a bunch of them. In my case, one of those I buried from the catastrophe was a non religious man who was married to a Muslim. The recitation of Al Fatihah, the 'lord's prayer' of Islam was never more moving than that day.

So I am deeply proud of my president for standing up for American values and not political points, unlike Long Island Representative Peter King (R) who said the president was giving in to 'political correctness. I am constantly dumbfounded that those on the right accuse the left of being something they are themselves. What is more 'politically correct' right now than mosque bashing.

I found a good article on the rise of Islamophobia by a religion prof at Reed College. You can read it here, on Religion Dispatches. (One of my newest go-to sites.)

Now, I have to go and find a particular screw (now be nice!) to finish the repair my back door. Gut Shabbes and Ramadan Kerim!

10 August 2010

"Situation Hopeless, But Not Serious"

Anyone remember the movie by that name? It was a dark comedy about two GIs captured by civilians and held prisoner in a private home in Germany during the war. The premise was that the jailor did not release them after the war, in fact not even telling them the war was over. Thus the title.

The title is cute because we sometimes say a situation is 'serious but not hopeless.' That describes my sense of the nation precisely. Over the last few weeks I have observed more and more disturbing things in our society:

- anger toward 'illegal immigrants' that is like that visited on Chinese workers in the 19th century.
- anti Islamism very like the vitriol directed at Roman Catholics in the same period.
- nullification efforts toward health reform like those in the slave holding south.

If you see a pattern here, as do I, you see a potential return to pre- Civil War America, and see that as serious and deeply wrong. Aat the moment, given the atmosphere, I am not very optimistic. Chances are things will get worse long before they get better. Worse, there is no guarantee they will get better.

In all honesty, we could truly find ourselves back in the 1820's with its financial panics, class conflicts, regional factions, and political gridlock. (See, I told you there was a pattern!) Not until the 1860s did it end, and then only through a terrible and destructive civil war. Yes, it could happen here again.

But I am not hopeless. Because I know history, I am not its prisoner. At its center, America is a place of hope - hope for individual liberty, social justice, and national virtue. We veer from our essential hope when we focus on one at the expense of the others.

Right now, we are enthralled with individual liberty, I think to excess. Modern conservatism is propelled by the attractive purity of perfect personal freedom. Ironically, the counter culture of the 1960s was a liberal movement focused on individualism too, and so many a young rocker is now a conservative, like Ted Nugent for example.

But America is more than that, and we all know it. That's why my liberal friends are mounting the ramparts for social justice, with as much conviction of its primacy as the conservative commitment to individualism. And like them they, or at least some of them, see this as a a binary conflict - for me to be right you must be wrong. That's why we need the third part, national virtue.

This is what gives me hope amid the storm. History teaches me that when America acted nobly it was at its best. And it has done do. The Marshall Plan was one such moment. The Peace Corps was another. Land Grant Colleges, the GI Bill, Brown vs Board of Education, all of these were moments when America did the right thing because it was the right thing. These things were for something more than personal profit or social engineering. This is my America.

Long long ago, the writer of the book of Hebrews encouraged the infant Christian community by writing about Abraham and Moses and others who lived by faith even when the reward of that faith never came. Turning to those living then, the writer essentially told them to have hope even if their own hopes do not come true. The author then exhorted them to continue saying, "compassed about as we are by such a cloud of witnesses, let us run the race that is before us."

Hope is believing in and living for the goodness of the cause, in goodness itself, not in one's reward for being good.

Thus I am hopeful because America is worth believing in even when it is not living up its its hope. I am no summer soldier, no sunshine patriot, as Thomas Paine put it. The words of the Declaration will not let me, nor the preamble to the Constitution, nor the words of Webster, Lincoln, Emma Lazarus, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King. They make me hope even now, perhaps especially now.

Enough preachingm though. Time for dinner.

08 August 2010

I Am Touched

So the giga-wealthy are getting virtuous. According to CNN, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are recruiting their fellow uber-rich to commit at least half their wealth to charity.

I am touched. It is, after all, and according to our former president and the current Ayn Rand devotees on the right, "your money." What magnanimity! What generosity! What nobility!

Yes, I am being sarcastic.

In my little mind, pinched as it is by my small dreams and limited ambitions, half of 1.2 trillion dollars still leaves half a trillion dollars in private hands. So among the questions I am still asking is' "Why just half?"

If you spent $1000 a day, that's $365,000 a year, it would take you 2000 years, that's two-zero-zero-zero, years to spend it all. And thanks to the miracle of compound interest, if you could limit yourself to that amount it would never end. You would end up with more money not less. In fact, a billionaire would have to spend over $40,000,000 a year to overcome the compound interest effect.

Most people live on about one tenth of $365,000 annually, as the average American family earns about $45,000 a year. A conservative spending billionaire thus exerts an effect greater than 1000 people.

One person is as powerful as 1000. Is this good for a democracy? And let's remember, that presumes only $1 billion. Gates and Buffett and their friends have way more than that. And they are making more every year.

Is it healthy for a democratic society to have so much power invested in so few? My conservative friends rightly question the unchecked power of government. But they seem far less worried about the unchecked power of wealth. If my faith in the goodness of government is naive, would not theirs in wealth be equally gullible?

So do be grateful for the moral initiative of our giga-wealthy, but don't applaud too loudly. The gap between those that have much and the have a lot less is still enormous. IMHO it is dangerously wide, and even the good will of the wealthiest does not close it enough for a democratic society to thrive.

Just Saying...

02 August 2010

Apologies in Order

I am holding hat in hand this morning because I re-read my post from yesterday and found several misspellings. Actually, they were not mispellings, they were actual words that were missing some 's's to make subject and predicate agree. I assure you I know how to parse my verbs, mostly. All I can say is that I was in a hurry (on my way to preach yesterday) and using a different keyboard than usual. A recipe for stumbles.

Yes, I could go back and correct them, but rather than do that and make you wounder if you were remembering in error, it seemed more honorable to point out my mistakes as publicly as I state my opinions.

Those in power never apologize because some adversary will exploit it for another purpose. (Not to name names, but one is spelled B-e-c-k)

We hear all too often about moral decline, but if we want mere citizens to take responsibility for their errors, our leaders have to do that too, and without calculating the political cost or advantage. Of course, we mere citizens have to 'man up' and ignore the chattering classes who depend on us to salivate when they ring their bells of innuendo.

I am not holding my breath.

01 August 2010

A Brief Tour Of Grief

After three days of attending meetings for the National Urban League, I took a day in this hot town to visit three poignant places on the National Mall - The Viet Nam Memorial, the Korean War Memorial and the Second World War Memorial. They are clustered around the Reflecting Pool that connects the Lincoln and Washington Memorials.

Being a Saturday in summer, the crowds were abundant despite the 90 degree heat. Getting there, visiting, and returning took over three hours. This was no quick sweet stroll. My visit went in reverse order of their creation. The first was the oldest, though for the most recent of the wars, Viet Nam. It is also the most well known.


Hard to believe it was so reviled and protested when it was proposed and built, but I vividly remember a sermon I delivered on that controversy. Seeing it in person for the first time, which is hard to believe, I noticed something for the first time. It inverts the usual formula for a public memorial.

Most memorials present a stylized image, a statue 0f soldiers mostly, that represent no one in particular because they cannot. Like the Tomb of the unknowns, each is present in the generalized image. Ms. Lin's design chose to honor every single individual, but at the price of a single recognizable image. Its existence is literally based on the engraving of every name, which, because of its being built into the earth not upon it, make it seem as though these names were engraved on the earth itself. Its power is that of carving one's initials on a rock to claim a shred of immortality. I was literally weighted down by all these names, so many they cannot be taken in, and the even greater weight of the stories they lived that should have been much longer. The sense of loss, tragic loss to them and the country, is inescapable.

Opposite the Reflecting Pool is the newer Korean War memorial, which combines elements of the Viet Nam memorial, favoring the stylized soldiers but with slabs of stone and a pool of water. The effect is more complicated, as attention is drawn to several objects. But the center is a larger than life patrol of soldiers in rain gear. The edges of this memorial include a list of all the nations involved in the conflict, though that is so subtle one can easily overlook it.

Long overdue, it being the truly "Forgotten War" without a clean end, I was ultimately less impressed because the oversized statues loomed up, almost like phantoms. They so dominate the memorial that the images overwhelm the purpose. Far from inviting me in to contemplate the lives of those who died, I found myself pondering the intended message of the memorial itself. Politics was on my mind, far more than poignance.

Lastly, I visited the Second World War memorial, dramatically situated at the opposite end of the Reflecting Pool, dramatically larger and grander than the other two, and the newest yet. This one frankly claims a more monumental role, not only in its size and location but also in its style which strive for an Olympian aspect.

Large steles pierced with bronze wreaths form an enormous oval surrounding an oval pool with a low continuous spraying fountain. Each of these steles signify a state or territory in the US, arranged in a curious fashion that is not self evident. Two large pavilion like towers anchor the longer axis of the oval representing the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters. A massive bronze sculpture is inside each, attached to the ceilings and walls and not to the floors.

It is as grandiose as the Viet Nam Memorial is solemn. And that is part of why I felt unsatisfied by it. The intended purpose, judging by its form and mass and style, is not to memorialize but to glorify. It succeeds too well, in my opinion. I almost hear crowds cheering, trumpets playing, laurels being placed on heads. And the people there sense the difference.

Those at the Viet Nam memorial moved slowly, as though in a cemetery. Which it is in a sense. Those at the Korean War Memorial explored it, trying to find its center and meaning. Apt for a war that remains undefined and unfinished. Those at the Second World War memorial put their feet in the water, chatted on the wide plaza, looked more self involved than thoughtful. While the intent may be to glorify, the response is ironically informal. Only at the edges, outside the memorial itself, did I find a touch of poignance, in the old man in a wheelchair whose blue cap said Pearl Harbor Survivor, and the line of blue frocked white bonnetted Mennonite pondering it all.
Three wars, the monuments, and in three hours three different nations as well. I could go on, but this is already too long.

25 July 2010

So Crazy, It Just Might Work

While I am a left leaning sort of guy, I am aware that human nature is not nearly as benign as many lefties tend to think. People can be mean, selfish, hostile, even evil. Especially so, when the consequences of their acts are separated from the acts themselves. If sex produced children in a week, for example, people (meaning men) would have a lot less sex. The nine months wait is long enough to lose track of cause and effect.

This same pattern is true in government. The massive deficit we have now has deep roots in the tax rebate we got almost ten years ago. (Remember the check?) The surplus was bad, remember? Give it back to the people, remember? Then came the calamity of 9/11, and in three years we were spending lots of money on two wars.

And yet, did we raise taxes to pay for those wars?

No, we lowered them again, taxes being bad and all that. So we started spending money we did not have, way back in 2002. And now we seem to have forgotten all that. By one estimate (click on the link) the cost of the wars accounts for more than half of the discretionary spending Congress appropriates.

Now, if we are serious about reducing the deficit, there are two ways to do that. One is raise taxes.

OMG! Taxes!

OK, then reduce spending. When you look at the chart, where would you start?

Tough choices. And we would not have to make such a tough choice if we knew what it would cost when we made it. So I have an idea. It's a crazy idea, but it might just work.

War Taxes. What if we could only go to war if we created a tax to pay for that war? I think we need a constitutional amendment that requires Congress to levy a separate and distinct tax any time they approve military intervention.

Your pay stub would have boxes for income tax, social security (FICA) and war. Your W2 and 1040 would include special calculations to figure your war tax along with your income tax. Everyone would know their stake, responsibility, whether they were in the services or not.

War costs money. Far more than the Depression, World War II bloated the federal government. At the height of the war, almost 40% of the GNP was flowing through the government. It happened in the Civil War as well, the first time an income tax was approved.

But if we had to pay for it personally, through a distinct tax that would grow every time the cost went up, at least we might see it when it happens. And who knows, we might actually question the sunshine patriots in Congress who are always willing to fight to very last drop of someone else's blood or the last farthing in someone else's purse.

I know. It will never happen. But maybe it should.

24 July 2010

How Legal Are You?

Here's a Switch, but as old proverb does say, "Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows." Evangelicals are lining up with our (foreign, Muslim, read "too black" to be one of us) president on immigration. Yep, it's true. You can read about in the (secular, liberal biased, and therefore unfair and unbalanced) New York Times.

In some ways, the flap over Arizona and 'illegal immigrants' has revealed the pulsing xenophonic heart of the Tea Party movement, which raises real issues but is partly propelled by fear that borders on paranoia. That its constituents are whiter, older, male'er than the rest of the population not only belies its claim to be the voice of the people but shows the driving fear of us older white male'er folks (yes, I fit that demographic) that we are being 'overrun' by 'outsiders,' meaning darker, younger, female'er folks. I could also include straight and middle class but that would make my post too long and messy.

(Is it purely accidental, btw, that the anger about illegal immigrants comes so close on the heels of the 'birther' movement that insists the president is himself illegal?)

So yay for Arizona for showing us how some big hearted Americans can also be small minded at the same time. And yay for the NAACP for calling the Tea Party on its closeted racism. And yay for Mr. Breitbart for being journalistic scum and proud of it. You go guys, and eventually the nausea and disgust will more than offset the momentary if actual appeal of the so called Tea Party.

This also means that those of us who are OK with a less white, less male, less straight America can also be Christians, and how cool is that? St. Paul said that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. That's what I call a Christian America. So as far as I can tell the Tea Party is both unamerican and unchristian.

If you think there is something wrong about all this, meaning the growing demonization of 'illegal immigrants' I invite you to drop in on "Wear Your Papers," on Facebook. July 29th is when the Arizona law goes into effect. This virtual event asks people to wear inverted blue triangles that day, which was what the German Reich required of alien workers.

But if you choose not to do that, I invite you to carry your passport that day, which is the gold standard of legality. What, you don't have a passport? We 'naturals' are allowed to go around with them. Even legal aliens have to carry their papers even now. But why should people believe you are a natural born citizen?

Nine states are considering Arizona like laws. Say you get pulled over for speeding. They could ask for your papers. A driver's license is not good enough. Passports are the standard. As Karl Malden used to say, "What will you do?" How will you prove your legitimacy if asked?

Of course, you won't be stopped. You don't look illegal, right? For now, that is.

21 July 2010

Xray Vision Anyone?

Treading uphill all the way, I digest the accumulated news at the gym in the mornings. And this article caught my eye.

Factory Defies Sweatshop Label, but Can It Thrive?

Aside from all the Good Guy cred, what got my attention was how the company plans to succeed by marketing its virtue as well as its product. Like Fair Trade Coffee, which I buy, Knights Apparel is telling me its product costs more because it pays more to its workers.

In some ways this is a lot like the appeal of organic food to health puritans, who do not want to sully their bodies with icky bits. But in another sense it is a kind of transparency.

When Upton Sinclair showed the true nature of the meat packing industry in his book "The Jungle" back in 1906, people learned the true nature of what they were eating, something so grotesque and disgusting that it moved the federal government to act, resulting in the FDA of today. Ralph Nader did the same thing with "Unsafe at Any Speed," which revealed the dangers of the Chevrolet Corvair and the disregard of the automobile industry to safety.

When we know not only the price of something, but the process involved in making it, we may elect to spend more if it is safer for us, or more honorably made. Of course, if we do not know where something comes from - food, drugs, clothing, cars - we can only choose based on what we can perceive such as price and personal experience.

I wonder what it would be like if all our stuff came with provenance, with a knowledge of how it was made and of what and by whom. Price matters. Quality matters. These we know. Decency matters too, and fairness as well, I think. At least I hope so.

16 July 2010

Still Feeling Creepy...

Even more so actually. Here is what I saw yesterday, and you tell me if this is not troubling.

13 July 2010

Cleaning Up

Being a sluggish fellow, meaning inclined to indolence, things pile up in my home office. (I maintain a semblance of order at my church where appearances matter) This week I am going through the books on my shelves here, about 55 linear feet of space.

When I moved in, books went anywhere just to get them out of boxes. Over the intervening five years stuff has moved about a bit, and so it was getting a mite chaotic. Two nights ago, feeling a gust of industry blowing me along, I decided to sort them and reorganize them.

This, of course, turned into a review of my study success and failure rate. On my green arm chair are the books I have read in the last year or two, most of them at least. Maybe you'll find them interesting. In no particular order...

Theodore Rex (about TR)
The Courtier and the Heretic (about Leibniz and Spinoza)
Undaunted Courage (the Lewis and Clark Expedition) Stephen Ambrose
A Hundred Years of Solitude by G G Marquez
Mozart a Biography by Solomon
Pop 485 by Michael Perry
Byzantium by Michael Angold
Austerlitz by W G Sebald
The Confessions by Augustine of Hippo
Hard Green by Peter Huber
Christianity and the Social Crisis by W Rauschenbusch
Colored People by Henry Louis Gates
Nothing Like It In The World (Transcontinental Railway) Stephen Ambrose
The Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust
Paradise Lost, by John Milton
The Odyssey, Homer, the Fagles translation
The Purgatorio, Dante, Hollander version
The Making of American Liberal Theology, 3 vols. by G Dorrien (almost done!)
The Five Books of Moses by Robert Altman
The Cambridge Commentary on Isaiah, 2 vols.
The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

Long on history, classics and religion. Short on novels and modern literature. And not nearly enough at that. I am working on a bio of Beethoven right now so can't take credit for that. And suspect that there are others I have set down somewhere and don't remember off hand. Still, not a very impressive list in terms of length.

But people seem interested in what clergy and other putatively educated people read, so there it is. Next time I'll share books on my office shelf that need to be read, handsome gifts among them, and not a complete list at that. But in case you haven't figured it out, I will never read all the books I have. Sad but far better than having more time than books, I would say.

08 July 2010

Feeling a Little Creepy

It's the Arizona thing. I do get it, that they and others are frustrated with the apparent inability or unwillingness of the federal government to prevent unlawful immigration. Such laws are a form of saying, "Well, if you won't clean up this mess, I'll do it myself," followed by much stomping about to make the point. We've all had those moments, and many of them are righteous.

What makes me feel creepy is how much this reminds me of the uptick in official antisemitism during the Great Depression. I found myself reviewing the history of the rise of Nazism, which grew partly in response to the Depression in Germany.

People there, suffering immense unemployment and financial uncertainty, saw "The Jews" as responsible for their problem. Not only the famous 'cabal of international financiers' imagined in the fictional "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," but ordinary citizens like themselves who because they were different were still felt to be outsiders. These Jews, ordinary people sometimes believed, were taking jobs away from them, meaning real Germans. They used things like schools and hospitals and other tax funded services.

In short, Germans saw Jews as outsiders who were a threat. Hostility to Jews was already there, mind you, although much reduced from medieval levels. But the economic crisis helped rekindle it when people needed a 'villain' to explain their woes.

I see uneasily similar attitudes behind the Arizona law, which like the Nuremberg laws, turned emotional anxiety into official policy. This law is directed at those who 'look' illegal, meaning Mexican. There are unlawful immigrants from all around the world, including blond Canadians and blue eyed Swedes. But is the the Mexicans who are the threat now.

Even after 9/11 states did not pass laws to address racialized xenophobia, so this willingness of local government to make laws based on fear, to put the power of the state in service to something bordering on racial paranoia, is truly distressing.

At least for those of us who know what happens when fear and xenophobia combine. We may not be heading down the road to fascism yet, but this may well signal a return to nativism, Know Nothing politics, and the simplistic tribalism that lay behind Jim Crow for a century. They all had their day in our history, and unless we remember those days more consciously we shall, as Santayana opined, surely repeat them.