Friday, July 30, 2010

Other ways to view Violence!: Blaming the poor

Now that the tax breaks for the uber-wealthy are going to expire, we get to hear all the vitriol again from Fox Noose and its brother-in-arms. But beyond the hate speech (more blatant victim-blaming) is the basic economic argument given by pretty much every conservative*:
The rich create jobs for the poor and middle class. If we alienate the wealthy and/or tax them too heavy, we will lose out on their ability to produce jobs.
And there is some truth to that claim. However, it is only one way to look at the economy of our economy. It is also a severely limited top-down approach.

Look at it from another view:
The poor and middle class sacrifice to create wealth for the rich. If you alienate them (which is the de facto mode in the world and the US), you lose your ability to gather your wealth. And, you may face a terrible, terrible revolution.

*And by this I don't mean the Tea Party or Noise-Maker crowds. I'm talking about several friends who are sensible people and sincerely want to help the poor and disenfranchised. They are attracted to fiscal conservatism because they're convinced it's the responsible and best way to lift all boats.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sunday Readings: Why we can't be Moderate

Personal Note:

I keep hearing talk from all political walks that we as a society have 'evolved,' that we know one thing is right and another wrong because we are better people now, more enlightened than our grandpappies were. I call "Bullsh*t." We garnered what rights we have, what freedoms we have because people sacrificed. It does no one any good to wait out the bad seeds. We must fight inequality wherever and whenever we find it. Now.

And now, your reading:


While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. .. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms...

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. We have gone through all of these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham's economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants --- for example, to remove the stores humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained.

As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves : "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?" We decided to schedule our direct-action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic withdrawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham's mayoralty election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run-off we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run-off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct-action program could be delayed no longer.

You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: "Why didn't you give the new city administration time to act?" The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may want to ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I-it" relationship for an "I-thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression 'of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state's segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to ace the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fan in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn't this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.

I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this 'hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity...

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides--and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: "Get rid of your discontent." Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ..." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime---the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some---such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle---have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach-infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as "dirty nigger lovers." Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful "action" antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Of course, there is much more to this brilliant, powerful and sadly beautiful letter and it should be required reading for all Christians.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

War, Good for, and What?

I found a towel on the bench. It was sweaty and place-marked at the top of bench where the head rests. This is a warning, the way Chicagoans reserve their parking spots with lawn chairs in the snow-banked winter, whoever was previously pressing here left their sweaty towel to say, "Hey, don't park your body here. I'm coming right back."

But, after five minutes in an ultra-busy fitness center, time's up. I kicked the towel to the floor, wiped up the moistness, and continued to take down the old weights to put up my significantly less-weighty weights. After I completed my 1,000 reps of grandma bench presses, I get up and a guy comes up to me and I nod that it's cool, I'm all done, just gotta clean up my glistening sweat. He says, to me, "Can you pick up that towel and put it over there? See, that towel is mine and it was right there and you moved it."

If you've ever seen Hi Fidelity or "Scrubs," you're familiar with the imaginary scenario moment right, where the guy dreams all these dreams of what should happen, but doesn't. A ninja-quick kick to his bald head, me yelling at him to pick up his own sweaty crap, me putting him in place about his lack of modesty, standards, hygiene, timeliness, and share-care.

But the truth is that not only did I do none of these things, I didn't even consider them. Before you could bat an eye, I said, "OK," sprayed and wiped the bench, picked up the towel as if it were a dirty, sweaty, foreign towel and dropped it in the dirty, sweaty, foreign towel bin on my way to take a much-needed shower. And I didn't even snap the towel on the creep. And I did it all reflexively because I'm generally a pretty nice guy. In person. (In the webz, maybe not so much...)

My niceness is tied to passivity. I generally try to avoid conflicts. And I know that this is not always the right thing to do. Sometimes there needs to be change, and sometimes there needs to be a conflict or a crisis to bring about the change. To seek what's best for humanity, indeed, to be Godly, means to sometimes bring things to a head. But it also means knowing that sometimes heading headfirst into conflict is irresponsible and dangerous.

When Weapons of Mass Destruction were supposedly hidden under Saddam's beard, I mistakenly believed (as did many Americans) that our options were:
1) Be afraid, be very afraid like those acquiescing surrender-monkeys in France.
2) Ninja-strike force straight to the gonads.

Of course, it wasn't Saddam's gonads that suffered the most (although the Marie Antoinette treatment was a bit... nasty), but as of July 16, 2010 (one day before my sweet daughter's third birthday):
  • Nearly 4,500 US soldiers have died
  • Nearly 32,000 US soldiers have been officially reported as wounded (unofficially, 150,000 Iraq vets are receiving disability benefits from the VA back in the US)
  • 338 journalists have died
  • 437 academics have been killed
  • Nearly 1500 contractors have been killed
  • Fatal Iraqi casualties are estimated to be, however, to be at 1,366,350.
  • This does not include basic structural tolls that knocking out an infrastructure would entail (running water, clean water, electricity, refrigeration, food, gas...)
Add up a trillion dollars and what do ya get? Was the cost worth it, in the long or short run?

Iraq, for me (at least now), is an easy target in a sense. Right now I'm beginning to question the veracity of any war. One could argue that the US's involvement in WWII was just and called for. But then was Hiroshima just? Fire-bombing millions upon millions of citizens in Japan and Europe? Better yet, could the whole war been avoided in the first place?

Not, mind you, neglected. Not ignored. Could there have a way to address the problems in Iraq, in Germany, in Afghanistan, in Japan before they escalated to all-out brazen attacks? A third way to address the problems rather than acquiescence (turning the other way while the problems continue or escalate) or the Bush Doctrine (striking at the 'nards before the 'nards strike back). There are viable alternatives to war.

There are several alternatives to war (some ideas taken from here and this here):
  • International coalitions to put on international pressure
  • Tribunals
  • International Criminal Courts
  • Arbitration and International Courts between the two states
  • Weapons sanctions
  • Allow the oppressed people to topple their own dictator through grassroots and nonviolent civil unrest
  • NOT food embargoes (that only starves the innocent and turns the ill-will against those who are blocking the food)
  • NOT restricting access to necessary, daily supplies (especially under the guise of weapon sanctions)

1. Require the leaders who promote and support war to personally participate in the hostilities – like medieval kings had to. This would provide a critical threshold of personal commitment to war by requiring some actual personal sacrifice of leaders.

2. Show the faces and tell the stories of the children of the ‘enemy’ until we can feel the pain of their deaths as though they were the deaths of our own children. It is much more difficult to slaughter an enemy who one recognises as being part of the human family.

3. Give full support to the establishment of the International Criminal Court, so that national leaders can be tried for all war crimes at the end of any hostilities. All leaders who commit horrendous crimes must be held to account under international law as they were at Nuremberg, and they must be aware of this from the outset.

4. Impeach any elected leaders who support illegal, preventative war – described at the Nuremberg Trials as ‘aggressive’ war. It is the responsibility of the citizens in a democracy to exercise control over their leaders who threaten to commit crimes under international law, and impeachment provides an important tool to achieve this control.

5. Rise up as a people and demand that one’s government follows its constitution. Cut off funding for war and find a way to peace. For any challenge to the legitimacy of war is the most powerful force for change to be found in history.

You know the myth that when you hit a man hard in his privates, you could affect his children? It's very true in the international sense. Too true.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Guest Post II: Naked Poor People and Other Teachings of Jesus

In the hardly-ever visited comments section on this-here blog, I got a very generous invitation from Mason to adopt one of his posts on his wonderful website to use for the Blog-a-thon on Nonviolent Resistance. In this post, Mason covers area that was fundamental for my understanding of NVR, especially stuff that I talked about in regards to Walter Wink previously, but never went into as much depth as he does here. And for that I'm grateful. But the end of this piece serves as an important bridge for what I want to cover in a couple days, the macro of anti-violent concerns: war. Without further adieu:

I believe the New Testament and the early Church teach a ethic of nonviolence. Not less violence, not 'just' violence, but nonviolence.

At the same time I want to make clear that I in no way think the Scriptural witness is that we ought to be passive, to be doormats. Quite the opposite, I think that starting with the teachings of Jesus we see a call to a radical, proactive, imaginative, intentional use of nonviolence to oppose the powers of this world. So pacifism (a term which I won't use often) is not what I'm getting at, much less passiveism, I think the Bible teaches us a way forward that is neither of those, but is also not violent or militant.
[I'm not claiming to have this all figured out, but I'm going to try and work through the issues as best I can.]....

Jesus lived in a place and time with an exceptional amount of violence (though the same land in the present day might give it a good run for it's money). After years of being conquered by competing empires, Israel was now in the hands of Rome, one of the most brutal and efficient empires in history. Rome claimed to bring peace and security (as all good empires claim), but in the words of the Roman writer Tacitus “they create a wasteland, and call it peace”.
To make the situation worse, people in Second Temple Israel also faced the violence of rebel zealot groups, messianic uprisings, and the sometimes violent but always present oppression of the poor (most people) by the wealthy elite.

It is to people in this sort of world that Jesus makes his call to “turn the other cheek”, “go the extra mile”, and “love your enemy”. Surely there is more material on this in the accounts of Jesus alone to fill any future posts, but I want to just touch on a couple of the most striking examples of his radical teaching primarily as seen in the Sermon on the Mount.

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” Matthew 5:38-44

There is much here and I think even if this is all we had the teaching is clear, we just tend to explain it away or try to marginalize it with other passages.
But first I want to deal with an objection often made to the application of this to our lives, that it simply is not practical. Jesus says “do not resist the one who is evil”, is that not far too much to ask? Are we really supposed to just sit back and let people perpetrate injustice against us, to harm us, to harm our loved ones? Combine that with 'turn the other cheek' and it sounds like a recipe for passive doormat living which solves nothing and maybe even smacks of cowardice.

That however is not what is being said here. To begin with, the word “resist” is ἀντιστῆναι , which actually combines “anti- against” with “histemi- armed revolt/rebellion”, so 'go against in armed rebellion'. In the Septuagint ἀντιστῆναι is used 44 times for military encounters, specifically the moment that armies collide in battle.1 So a better translation would be “do not retaliate with violence against the one who is evil”, much different than “Do not resist” I think.

With this in mind let us look at the examples Jesus gives here. The backhand slapping of the cheek is something one does to an inferior, and in that culture you only hit with your right hand (for sanitation reasons), so if you 'turn the other cheek' you are doing two things. First, you are declaring that the person abusing you has not forced you into submission. Second you are putting him in a position where if he wants to strike your left cheek with his right hand, he pretty much has to hit you, which declares (culturally) that you are an equal. Both methods have the effect of standing against and shaming the one who is hitting, while not endorsing the violence of striking back.

The second scenario is brilliant. In the court system of the day, you could use clothing as collateral, and if you failed to pay your debts it could be repossessed. Quite obviously the person who must use their clothes as collateral though is very very poor. The one who takes them to court then is taking from them the only thing they own, with one exception, the undergarment.
Jesus says to give your undergarment to the person dragging you into court as well.
Logically then, the poor person has nothing, at all, not even clothes. So he is then standing naked in front of his oppressor (for in those days, as it often is now, poverty and debt was linked inextricably to political oppression and marginalization).
The twist here is that although nakedness was shameful in Judaism, it was shameful to the one who caused it. So the poor naked man, who is going to draw a lot of attention, will now be sharing the story of who caused his nakedness, bringing shame to the one taking the last of his possessions.
Again, we see a creative, but nonviolent resistance to evil and misused power, which exposes it for what it really is for all to see.

Third we see someone forced against their will to carry the heavy pack of a Roman soldier for a mile, doubly offensive since the Romans were the occupiers. Rather advising one to slide a knife in their back (a popular practice around this time) Jesus says to go a second mile.
Again, this changes the dynamic of the situation, and exposes the injustice being done. It was not legal for the Roman to make you carry the pack more than a mile, so to avoid punishment and public outcry (which was always boiling just below the surface) the soldier would be forced to ask and plead for his pack back, and perhaps along the way recognize that the other here is a person as well and not a pack animal.

All these show us three things.
Jesus was opposed to violence even in situations of oppression, abuse, or gross injustice.
Jesus was, at the same time, opposed to passivity, promoting instead a creative third way which changes the situation and shames evil actions.
Finally these are not “timeless” proposals. The way they are grounded in specific cultural situations means we can not just parrot these responses but must imaginatively find ways of following the principles taught here in our own context.

More important than all that though is the last part of the section. People will make their arguments for violence and war, but these arguments always assume that war is a valid response (which Jesus does not seem to agree with) and that the opponent is the “bad guys” who will only respond to violence.

Jesus undoes all that with the command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

I've heard many people attempt to get around that, but have yet to hear a single real explanation of how shooting, or stabbing, or bombing, or nuking, or waterboarding, or clubbing, or beating our enemies could possibly be an expression of love. And if they are not, then we should not be doing those things, no matter the cost, because that is what Jesus says we must live like, and he doesn't give an exception clause for “if they're really really bad”. Rome, the “enemy” if you were Jewish at that time, was incredibly ruthless on a great many occasions, Jesus himself had been alive during some of the most brutal repression and killing of uprisings in Galilee, and so Jesus knew exactly what he was saying when he said to love even and especially those people.

1 Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence. Pg. 11

Monday, July 12, 2010

Violence and Imagination

Here's my confessions:
  • I stopped watching Arnold Schwarzenegger movies because Jackie Chan's fighting was more realistic and fun.
  • When I walk near gang-bangers or drug-abusers I sometimes imagine that they do something threatening and imagine how I will press their faces to the wall in abject defeat - after thrashing them a few times with car doors, my ninja-like kicks, and Lou Ferrigno-type punches.
  • My own experience with child-rearing was corporal-based and as much as I try to shake that system from my bones, violence still registers as the final step in correction. As in, the end of diplomacy is bombs, the end of discipline is a whoopin'.*
I'm limited, shackled to violence. I grew up listening to violent rhetoric, singing songs glorifying violence, watching sh*t blow up and thinking that was cool (and it is, except when it blows up on people. Which happens every time the real sh*t blows up).

But here's where I pat myself on the back:
  • I never got into fights and made a willful choice not to join the military when I was young because - even as young as seven years old - I figured that Jesus didn't want me to fight.
  • I have always appreciated the skills of Bruce Lee, but could never get into his movies because of the cold-blooded killings.
  • Okay, that's about all I got...
I recognize that there is a disparity here. Oppressed people tend to understand violence best because that is what they have seen and experienced. So it should not shock people when, say Palestinians, Hutus, Northern Irish, Pakistanis, or pick-your-oppressed-people-from-nearly-any-country-in-Africa/North America/South America/Asia/Europe respond in violence (although often the violence done by the oppressed is immeasurably smaller than that done by the oppressors to them). There needs to be a widening of the imagination. The imagination to believe - and this has been proven to be the case time and again - that creative nonviolent resistance is more effective than armed resistance.

However, when dealing specifically with non-violence as a tool, we cannot make the mistake that others in the struggle for righteousness and justice make (and it's an easy one to make): you cannot fight for equality by any means necessary. When it comes to employing violence, you can either choose to act in one way or the other. You cannot be both violent and nonviolent. One squelches the movement of the other.

Freedom is active movement. Unlike in nature, however, this movement is not self-sustained, it doesn't start and keep going until it hits an opposing force; its constantly in friction and needs constant reinforcement. And still, above that, there is counteractive and hostile resistance to freedom. Those who resist are looking for ways to discredit and derail the movements of freedom because it threatens their grasp of power. Nonviolence is a method of changing hearts and minds so that the world - including the oppressors - can recognize the oppression for what it is, heartless inhumanity. It is pro-action towards freedom that engages all. But it's also extremely costly.

And because of the cost, we need to be all the more engaged in nonviolent resistance itself. And that takes some use of the imagination - through everyday examples, through hearing the stories of those who have fought this fight before us, through filling our minds with something more than glorified explosions, perhaps.

* I talked briefly about that here.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Wrestling with Nonviolence. A guest post

Today's guest blogger and inaugural post in The Great Nonviolence Blog-a-thon '010 is Facebook friend and all-around good guy Kurt Willems. I chose to start out with this essay (found here in his blog Groans from Within) because I think it serves well as both an introduction to the topic and as a sort-of parallel to my emergence with nonviolent resistance.

Dear Reader,

There is an area of theology that I have wrestled with in new ways for the past four years or so: war and peace. I have a friend who pushed back on areas of nationalism and just-war theory for quite some time, and it seems that we have found consensus in the last year and a half or so... Through much reading, reflection, and prayer; I now hold to the view of nonviolence.

Nonviolence is a word that has more benefits than using the term pacifism. Pacifism often communicates inaction or helplessness. A useful observation that was made by my professor recently was differentiating between the language of – nonresistance, pacifism, and nonviolence. Pacifism’s weakness is that it seems to relate to withdrawal from conflict. The other terms (“non_____”) are also a bit frustrating because they define themselves around what they are not, rather than what they are. The difference here (which is a key difference for me) is that nonresistance is just as much of a “withdrawal” word as pacifism. Traditionally, the Mennonites (my tradition) have preferred this term, but I am not sure that I am fully against “resisting” someone if justice is threatened; I am however against doing violence to them. Now this is where the dialogue gets a bit interesting for me because this logic begs a question: what qualifies as violence?

The above question can surely become one that is relativistic because it depends on how one perceives violence. Some would be against violence to the point that football is too aggressive of a sport (this doesn’t work for this former team captain :-) ). Others would say that killing is the line that must be drawn, but everything up to that point for the protection of the innocent is justifiable. I am not comfortable with either of these extremes on this spectrum... As I continue to wrestle with this tension in light of Scripture, I have found that it is helpful to think of violence as anything that dehumanizes the ‘other.’ Using some forms of restraint to hold back a person who is violent does not have to be dehumanizing. Force and restraint, when done for justice without the use of actual dehumanizing techniques seem to be consistent with the Sermon on the Mount’s nonviolent witness. This is very much a circumstantial approach, but always within the parameters of avoiding anything that would treat a person as less than a human created in God’s image. But, this also leaves the passage in Matthew 5.39 as seemingly “resisted” as it says, “do not resist an evildoer.” This would be problematic if we did not look at the context a bit closer. Jesus follows this saying by adding that someone who is slapped on the right cheek is to show them the left cheek as well. As Walter Wink and others have demonstrated, this was an act of subversive resistance. Not through violence, but through demanding to be treated as a human equal. The first backhand slap to the face on the right side would be the way a master would hit a slave (superior to inferior), and Jesus says to turn the other cheek in a way that makes the attacker have to choose to punch you with a closed fist as a man would strike another of equal status. This is a new kind of resistance, not with the fist or sword, but with creativity that causes your attacker to consider his actions once more. For this reason, I am more comfortable with placing myself on the nonviolent part of the larger spectrum of war and peace from a Christian perspective. I believe in resistance without violence.

It should also be noted that Mark Baker’s insight in his article about his own journey towards embracing pacifism (his language) also allows for there to be the restraint of evil through violence, but that this is to come from the state. Taking the lead from Ellul, he separates the role of the governments to carry out justice through the sword from the role of the church in the midst of conflict. The church must not expect the state to operate as though it were ‘Christian.’ To impose such makes this position illogical in light of the broken relationships the world has at the present. All this is the say that the church is invited to resist violence in all its forms, while recognizing that in a fallen world, God allows for a “plan b” (nations) in order to restrain this planet from becoming completely chaotic. Mark’s perspective raises important questions about the level to which a Christian ought to be involved in military/police force. Perhaps at times it may be appropriate to live in the “gray” on this question rather than create solid black-white boundaries of a bounded-set ethic (although my personal conviction is against all military service, but not necessarily police).

Finally, I was really helped by Richard Hays’ chapter on violence in The Moral Vision of the New Testament. I do not think that there is a single moment in which I found myself disagreeing with him (except his choice word of pacifism, which is mostly semantics). His exposition was insightful and clarifying for me. The section that helped me the most was the one that dealt with the questions of the Roman soldiers in the New Testament. Just-war folks always bring up: when soldiers became Jesus followers, they were not told to quit their job. Hays took this on in a section of his chapter and made the following observation: “…precisely as Roman soldiers, they serve to dramatize the power of the Word of God to reach even the unlikeliest people” (335). God reaches to unlikely places and peoples to reveal his grace, which serves to illuminate that military participation is similar to tax collectors and other sinners. It would be an argument from silence to claim that the rest of the NT texts about peacemaking are revitalized because soldiers are not specifically told (in the text) to quit their jobs. I think, as faithful readers and ethicists of the NT, we must listen to where Scripture speaks and not give a louder voice to the silence.

Kurt Willems is a pastor in the Mennonite Brethren movement and is currently working towards a Master of Divinity degree at Fresno Pacific University. He is considers himself an: Anabaptist, lower-case evangelical, fairly charismatic, sometimes contemplative, follower of Jesus. Kurt’s passions include theology, spirituality, social justice, creation care, ethics, ministry, and leaving behind the right answers. He blogs at: Groans From Within and is also on Twitter and Facebook .

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Oh My Blog-a-thon! On Non-Violence


Several years ago, blogging was Teh Tihng To Dos on teh Interwebz! When I joined the movement just over five years ago, it was the way to communicate your constipations and diarrhetic thoughts to the world. This was before Facebook and Twitter became de rigeur for connecting long-lost friends, making new friends, following Ashton Kutcher's constipations and diarrhetic thoughts, cyber-blasting ideological opponents, etc.

But then I realized that I still had a lot of thoughts/opinions that I could never write out fully in FB, let alone Twitter. And some of my replies were too long - and too repeated - to do anyone any good. So, I returned to blahgging. And I've noticed a lot of others have as well. And then there's others on the verge.

I was thinking about writing on non-violence and some of the democratic experiments that were happening during the early-to-mid sixties when I remembered a staple of blogging from my first go-round: The Blog-a-Thon. Rather than me talking/blabbing/diatribing-for-hours-on-end (and constipating and diarreting), it'd be much more effective/cool/collaborative/exciting/easy/enlightening/fun to do it with friends and fellow travelers.

For the next week (starting this weekend, the 10th, and through the 18th of July), the task is to write twenty posts on the topic of non-violence. The history, the rhetoric, the amplifications, imaginings, stories of, riffs on, poems about... Whatever you can imagine - the more specific and vivid the better. As local, international, household, female-empowerment, educational tool, political weapon, whatever angle you need to tell it.

If you want to sign up for one or more slots, please let me know. When you're done, send the link to the comments here. If you don't have a blog but would like to contribute, you can write it as a facebook note, alert me and I'll copy and paste it on here as a guest post.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Sunday Readings: The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope

The Christian hope is not simply for' going to heaven when we die,' but for 'new heavens and new earth, integrated together.'...

What are the results of construing the Christian hope in this way? It gives us a view of creation which emphasizes the goodness of God's world, and God's intention to renew it. It gives us, therefore, every possible incentive, or at least every Christian incentive, to work for the renewal of God's creation and for justice within God's creation. Not that we are building the kingdom by our own efforts. Let us not lapse into that. Rather, what we are doing here and now is building for God's kingdom. It is what Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 3.10-15: there is continuity between our present work and God's future kingdom, even though the former will have to pass through fire to attain the latter. It is also clearly implied in 1 Corinthians 15.58: the conclusion of Paul's enormous exposition of the resurrection is not an outburst of joy at the glorious life to come, but a sober exhortation to work for the kingdom in the present, because we know that our work here and now is not in vain in the Lord. In other words, belief in the resurrection, the other side, if need be, of a period of disembodied life in the Lord (cf Cor 15.29), validates and so encourages present Christian life, work and witness.

A suspicious reader might, perhaps, think that this is sliding down the hill towards some kind of naturalism or even pantheism. That would be quite wrong. This same theology, precisely because it speaks of a renewed heaven and earth, rules out any sort of pantheism such as (for instance) you find in New Age theology at the moment. It emphasizes that creation is good, but in need of renewal and restoration by a mighty act of God, parallel to the resurrection of Jesus. We cannot divinize nature as she stands; were we to do so, we would be locking ourselves in the cabin of a ship that is going down, since nature as she stands is subject to the long, slow (to our eyes) process of decay. 'Change and decay in all around I see'; but that does not mean that the cosmos is evil, merely that it is not divine.

The Christian hope cannot, therefore, collapse into individualism ('me and my salvation'). If we allowed it to, we might be making a similar mistake in our theological context to that of first century Israel in her theological context. We would imagine that God's whole purpose focused on us and us alone, instead of seeing grace as summoning us to be God's agents in mission to and for the whole world. (This, I suggest, is the way to a proper construal of being in the image of God-not simply that we as humans are somehow like God, a rather impressive thing to be, but that we as God's image are to reflect his saving, healing love into the rest of God's creation.)

As for the use of language, therefore, I suggest that it is all right to use the word 'heaven,' so long as we remember that it refers to God's dimension of present-to-hand reality. If we talk about' going to heaven,' we strictly speaking should remember that that means' going to be with God, with Christ, until the time when God makes new heavens and new earth and gives humans new bodies appropriate for citizens of this realm.' The language of 'going to heaven' is so ingrained in us that I sometimes despair of correcting the false impressions that are thereby given; but I think the attempt must be made. Another example from a popular hymn, 'Sun of my soul, thou saviour dear'; after a devout and humble sequence of prayer, the last verse suddenly turns from Christianity to Buddhism:

Come near and bless us when we wake,
Ere through the world our way we take;
Till in the ocean of thy love
We lose ourselves in heaven above.

One suspects that many devout Western Christians are blithely unaware of the way in which that thought, of the soul leaving the physical world and becoming lost, a drop in the ocean of disembodied reality, manages at a stroke to deconstruct the New Testament picture of the future life.

Should we continue, then, to speak of 'souls' at all? I see no problem with the word in principle (as Lewis Carroll suggested, you can use words how- I ever you like as long as you pay them extra on Thursdays); you can say 'soul,' as long as you are committed to meaning by that 'a whole human being living in the presence of God.' Soul-language, within a Christian context, is a shorthand for telling a story of that sort, a story about the way in which human beings as wholes are irreducibly open to God. It is not, within Christian theology, a shorthand for a story in which a partitioned human being has a soul in one compartment, a body in another, and quite possibly all sorts of other bits and pieces equally divided up. We can then continue to (use the word 'soul' with fully Christian meaning; but we should be careful, l because the language has had a chequered history, and may betray us.

The language of 'soul' is telling a story; the trouble with shorthands is that they can become absolutized. The story is of a person as a person living with God and towards God, , departing and being with Christ.' I prefer not to push beyond where Scripture takes us on such things; Paul does not speculate as to what more precisely happens when one has thus' departed.' In 2 Corinthians 5.1-5 he is stressing that the eventual goal is a totally renewed vi' body, not a disembodied spirit. It is natural for us to use the language of separation of body and soul, in order that we then have a word available to talk about the person who is still alive in the presence of God while the body is obviously decomposing, But we should not think of the soul as a part of the person that was always, so to speak, waiting to be separated off, like the curds from the whey.

The language of immortality itself, then, has to be held within the whole sweep of thought from creation to new creation. Some churches, I have noticed, have stopped saying merely, of the departed, 'may they rest in peace,' and have added 'and rise in glory.' That, it seems to me, is a thoroughly proper thing to say of those who have gone on ahead of us...

Christian hope, therefore, is for a full, recreated life in the presence and love of God, a totally renewed creation, an integrated new heavens and new earth, and a complete humanness complete not in and for itself as an isolated entity, but complete in worship and love for God, complete in love for one another as humans, complete in stewardship over God's world, and so, and only in that complete context, a full humanness in itself.

Of course, the most glorious feature of the whole renewed creation, the new heavens and the new earth, will be the personal presence of Jesus himself. 'When he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is' (1 John 3.2). Or, as another hymn puts it, 'And our eyes at last shall see him/ Through his own redeeming love' (though the hymn then spoils it somewhat by implying that this seeing will be in 'heaven above,' rather than in God's complete new-heaven-and-newearth new creation.) Since the Greek word for 'presence,' particularly for 'royal presence,' is parousia, it seems to me that that word is misunderstood if we think of it as simply' coming.' Jesus will indeed 'come again,' from the perspective of those still labouring here in the present earth; but I believe it is more appropriate, and more biblical, to see Jesus' personal presence, within the glorious renewed cosmos, as the ultimate feature of Christian hope. But that is another subject, for another occasion.

-NT Wright
from his talk The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Independents Day

A few thoughtful blog posts have been written recently concerning the American Independence celebrated on July 4th here, and often uncritically embraced by some of the more conservative American churches. All of the following blogs (most written by facebook friends) are written by American Christians who are somewhat critical of Nativism and uber-patriotism (none of them, as far as I can tell, would be described as a radical or America-hater, except by those on the far-right I suppose):

Kurt Willems: Why Christianity and July 4th are Incompatible

As Christians, we need to recalculate our past and allow the gospel to be critical of certain things we now celebrate. Is it honorable to kill because people don’t like being taxed? I think the Jesus who says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” would probably say “No.”

Church historian Mark Noll said the following in an article he wrote for Christianity Today about just war and the Revolutionary War:

During this confused misunderstanding, the Bible was used as a reservoir of images, moral principles, and types. Many sermons in America (and some in Britain) supported revolt, while a few in America and England argued against it. Serious exegesis, however, of what would seem to us like the relevant passages (such as Romans 13) was very rare. Rather, it was much more common for patriots to liken George III to Pharaoh and George Washington to Moses, or to depict the conflict as a struggle between the Woman and the Beast of Revelation 12. Patriots and Loyalists were both much more likely to add scriptural authority to political reasoning rooted in some other ideology than they were to attempt reasoning from the ground up on the basis of Scripture.

This war was not rooted in scripture but in a false political agenda. Noll reminds us of how history played itself out: “Americans fought a war to gain the kind of freedom that Canada, New Zealand, and Australia were simply given after not too many decades.” Our nation, in other words, killed other Christians in order to gain independence that would have eventually been granted to them in a “just” fashion, had the founding fathers not been so trigger-happy over issues of taxation.

Carson Clark: The Annual Debunking the Fourth Post: Top 10 Unsightly Facts about the American Revolution

1) American colonists had the world's highest standard of living in 1776. Not much economic suppression there.

2) The rallying call of "no taxation without representation" ignores the fact that the vast majority of the English at the time did not meet the property requirements for voting. Even John Wesley opposed the war on these grounds, pointing out that not even he could vote.

3) The media's reporting of most of the events leading up to the war was sensational at best. Take the "Boston Massacre" as an interesting case study. One of our key Founding Fathers and future presidents, John Adams, agreed that the "massacre" was provoked by drunk Americans and was no massacre but was self-defense, as evidenced in the legal defense and acquittal he provided for those soldiers despite the personal fear he had over the negative impact it'd have upon his political ambitions.

And a (sort-of) reply by Scot McKnight: For July 4th, a (set of) thought(s)

1. The most critical of celebrating July 4th on Sunday are progressive evangelicals and liberals.
2. The defining characteristic of progressive evangelicals and liberals is justice.
3. Celebrating freedom and release from oppression and reveling in the achievement of peace and justice are God-directed in the Bible.

I think the critics are missing a great opportunity.

So, let's turn the day into a universal celebration of justice. Let's not hear about muskets and the British Crown and Boston; let's hear about the importance of peace and justice and that God wants us to live justly.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Chicago and Wal-Mart

Yesterday the City Council of Chicago unanimously rubber-stamped a new Wal-Mart in the South side neighborhood of Pullman yesterday, the second one within the city. My friends and I (and their friends) have been having rather vigorous debates about the benefits and detriments of such a move. Most of us are at least somewhat torn (which is good in having such debates). On the positive side (or is it negative, but pro-having Wal-Mart), the neighborhoods that the Wal have moved into are economically in shambles, with little-to-no businesses in which residents can turn to work, and few fresh, abundant, available and affordable food options. Indeed, the common term for us urbanites is "Food Desert*," as in, "OTOH, bringing in a Wal-Mart may help to reduce the food desert problem in the West and South Sides."

And the FD problem is a real one in these areas. Fresh food (if it can be called fresh by any stretch of the imagination) is so over-priced and rare that it's virtually a non-negotiable. It's not uncommon that grocery stores in many of the red-lined districts are miles apart. And with obesity and related health concerns on the rise (as the distance between food and the consumer grows exponentially), getting a store that sells cheap, fresh foods in the area - additionally, that also functions as an all-in-one stop - is a, well... get.

But, the question remains, is Wal-Mart the only alternative? Is it truly the only option that these long-neglected and underserved neighborhoods have? Or, more to the point, does the fact that they are underserved function more to Wal-Mart's benefit than to the community's?

In an interview with union historian and author Nelson Lichtenstein, The Chicago Reader's Max Brooks talks about the history and incoming urbanization of The Biggest Box. Here are some excerpts for your liesurely comfort:

One thing you write about early in the book is how Sam Walton, in pioneering the Walmart stores in the 1960s and 70s, took advantage of the rural isolation of these small towns in Arkansas and Missouri. I was wondering if you saw any parallels to what they're trying to do now, getting into these urban markets. A lot of these neighborhoods, particularly on the south and west sides of Chicago, suffer from similar kinds of economic isolation.

There are two similarities between the very early Walmart and their recent effort to move into urban areas. One is that in rural Arkansas, in effect, the population was underserved. There were all these small stores which were kind of monopolies and had poor distribution and high prices. Walton took a look at that and saw there was a big opportunity there. Secondly, in both situations you have a large underemployed population of potential clerks, or workers in the stores, so really the wages in the stores can be quite low.

You write that opening stores in areas where a lot of people are living on the edge is actually part of their corporate strategy: their business model basically can't exist without a churning underclass.

I would add: Walmart would've been a success in any event, but it became a particularly big success because its years of great growth were, whether by luck or by planning, the same years of the Reagan, Bush, even Clinton-era transformation of the minimum wage and the decline of the unions. It took advantage of that. Walmart's always prided itself that 25,000 people apply for 400 jobs when a Supercenter opens up. But this has been the case in America in general for the last 30 years. It's not attributable to the fine job Walmart does. Whenever you have an employer of any size in any kind of urban area you'll get 25,000 applicants. Walmart often uses that as a kind of argument that "Well, we're doing great."

The whole interview is short and worth a read (partly because The Reader could use more eyeballs)...

The truth is, there are other alternatives involving community-building. But the union-busting (and I'm no blind fan of unions. But it's foolish to deny them any foothold) is equatable to community-breaking. The stronghold that WM will have in West Humboldt Park and the Pullman District will make it harder for other, less-endowed, local and small businesses to survive or open there. And the wages may be decent for the neighborhood, but at what cost? And who benefits?

Certainly not this child worker (whose company sources from Wal-Mart amongst others):

*In point of fact, notice that all of the citations in the Wiki article are Chicago-based. Are we the only ones with this problem? If so, wth?