26 November 2011

It’s Not Personal

Here in our corner of the country the news was captured by this story:

Fred Meijer, West Michigan billionaire grocery magnate, dies at 91 | MLive.com

As a fellow “Fred” I was disposed to like him, and his reputation for personal modesty and kindness seemed to me quite authentic.  We met socially several times, you see.  He attended a memorial I conducted for a member who was a devoted volunteer at the eponymous Meijer Gardens.  If not part of his circle, I was not far from it.

But as someone else wrote, Fred was part of the wealthiest 1/10th of 1% in the country.  Jeff Smith says, “According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, Meijer Inc. spent over $300,000 in each of the past 2 years with their state Political Action Committee. According to Opensecrets.org.”

Good guy?  Bad guy? 

Long ago I had a moral epiphany - It’s not personal.  No one person in society can be held responsible for creating or fixing the wrongs in that society.  The very rich are not naturally superior any more than the poor are naturally inferior.  We each make good choices and bad ones, are both generous and selfish.  Our big problems (racism, sexism, etc.) thus cannot be random results of people making good and bad choices.  If that were, then the fortunate and the unfortunate would be randomly spread around – irrespective of race or gender and so on. 

But they are not because societies are like rivers not oceans.  They flow through channels, and those channels, cut and reinforced over generations, privilege some parts of society over others. 

Focusing on the individual, whether to explain her poverty or to criticize his wealth, ignores this reality.  Privilege is always part of the equation, as much as pluck or luck.  The left is no more righteous in condemning a rich person than the right in criticizing a poor person.  Doing so, distracts us from the pervasive (if largely invisible) effects of privilege.

Let’s be honest and admit that if we were in Fred Meijer’s position, or any other rich person, we would probably make the same sort of decisions they would.  Rich or poor, we would try to keep what we have and get even more because that is what imperfect beings like us do. 

Valorizing Fred Meijer is wrong, but so is condemning him.  If privilege is wrong, one drop, even a rich drop in that river, is not enough to cut a new channel.  That will take the 99%. 

20 November 2011

Hopeless But Not Serious


Hope is a big deal to me. Because I find it easy to lose it. In two weeks I am going to preach on it, as part of the quartet of themes that have defined advent at my church for half a century – faith, hope, love, and joy. And I find myself wondering where it comes from.

Maybe it is the early sunset and the encroaching cold, but a wind of hopelessness found me this evening. It is not rational, but it is there.

This is no existential state, understand. I do not despair of the world, which might actually be rational with all that is going on. I feel hopeless about me. To be specific, I am more and more certain that I have less and less to offer.

Not many years ago I felt pretty good about my preaching powers, for example. There are some people who remember when I could chisel some stunning sentences, but in the last few years I have been unable or unwilling to carve those words as I once did. Words and phrases that came readily, delighting me with their pith and point, scurry into corners when I spy them now. More and more I find myself hemming and hawing, knowing there is a good word or a powerful phrase and unable to snag it.

Four or so years ago or so I started a manuscript, a spiritual autobiography prompted by encouragement from a few friends. It took most of two years to draft, and another year to revise. Some friends helped and it is better, but judging from the ‘no thank you’ letters from publishers and my own gimlet eye, it is still far from publication, if ever. I look at it and see a ponderous tome that has little to offer.

Which is how I feel about myself this evening. This is the state at which sinners often turn to God. If there is no good hope in oneself, then turn to a higher source. Let’s call it the neurotic’s version of the second of the twelve steps. I understand this and even feel it.  But for me hope has to be honest, whether placed in me or some deity.

I suppose what I can hope for is that despite my limited and diminishing powers there might still be a moment or a place where what I have can be of lasting use. But how will I know?

Fortunately, one of the side effects of humility is less-self involvement.

16 November 2011

Long time no write

But lots of wrong.

Since last time I have was in NYC for a few days to reconnect with friends and family not seen for many months. While there I took time to visit the late great Zuccotti Park encampment. My interest was not simply curiosity.

Before leaving, our local Occupy Grand Rapids group was searching for a place to camp out, unwilling to squat on parkland that was clearly illegal. Without thinking, I offered them night use of our parking. (We are a downtown church which is where Occupy folks like to be for maximum visibility and access.)

Just before leaving we moved them from the parking lot, where they had to pack up every morning to allow cars in, to under our portico which means they can unpack and stay. The picture gives you an idea.

Why are we doing this? Because they are a voice that has not been heard for a long time. In these troubled times, the focus has been on debt and government overreach, which are important but not the whole story. Occupy has made us look at other angles of the economic issues that have been dismissed or just ignored by most of the media and the country.

Agree or not, they are asking that we pay attention to the disparity of income, the persistence of unemployment, the cost of student indebtedness, the influence of money on government. As I say it to those who ask, it can be summarized in fifteen words:

Too few have too much. Too many have too little. We need to change this.

Precisely how and to what extent is highly debatable, but the issue is real and I think even more crucial than deficits and government overreach. Their number and anger and persistence demand our attention. And they succeeded.

Oakland, Portland, Salt Lake City, New York City, have all rousted and demolished the encampments. The reasons were reasonable – sanitation, drug use, sexual assault – but I suspect these were no more than the pretext, somewhat the way some police stop black drivers for broken tail lights much more than white drivers.

I have written, without much success, that the next step in this movement is for houses of worship to become the sanctuaries for Occupy, as we have. I see no reason why any Christian, Jewish or Islamic building should not shelter these people who are living the demands for justice found in Torah, Gospel, and Qur’an. My guests in Grand Rapids are a gift to me and my church. Not without effort of course, but my members feel they are actually doing something and not just saying something. We are blessed.

Why is this not happening everywhere?