Sunday, May 27, 2012

Saving Ourselves from this Corrupt Generation

Acts 2 (NIV)
“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

"All people"? Well, there's God being all egalitarian and accepting and open, ain't that it?

Your sons and daughters will prophesy,

And daughters? Well, as long as they're silent about it and let the menfolk handle the serious studying of God's word.

your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,

Again with the women!! Get it together, already. Women can't preach so why waste your spirit on them?

I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.

Blood and fire! Fire! Fire! Yes! Burn those gays and heathens and Messicans and Arabs!

The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

Oh cool! It's all about the end times and the rapture! Yippeee!! Bring on the BLOOD BATH!!

The above was brought to us by the ancient prophet Micah by way of the Jesus-follower Peter on the first Pentecost, and then interrupted by a common Bible Belt interpretation. It's a selfish understanding of the Bible, one focused largely on our own experiences and formed by a consciousness of privilege and fueled by a spirit of vengeful persecution.

"Wait til Jesus comes back and gets those liberals/welfare dependents/elites for slighting me!"

It's an odd mix to have. Not that there wasn't a lot of blood and wrath on the minds of the Old Testament prophets, or even in the stories that Jesus and the apostles told. But their sites were set on the oppressive empires that were actually oppressing them. Making it impossible for them to live, to operate. Abandoning widows and orphans. Conquering them with military force. Excising all their wealth into a centralized body.

Israel, Assyria, Babylon, and Rome and their emperors and their ways of exploitation and domination were, in the language of the prophets and the apocalyptic writers of the bible, the sun and the stars and the moon that would be darkened and bloodied and overcome. 

If I were the rest of the world, I would know this passage to be speaking of the end of the American empire and her multinational corporation partners. And I'd be rejoicing.


But the end of empire-dom does not occur through bloodshed. It will not happen through the art of war, via tanks or bombs or guns. Neither will oppression cease through a supergroup of superpowered superbeings or via battleships or really terrible lightning bolts coming from a grey-bearded god in the sky. Those are the old ways, the language of oppression and dominance and violence. When we follow the old ways, we are only replacing one tyrant with another. 

If we continue in the old ways, what are we saving ourselves from and what are we being saved into? From the violence of one group to the violence of another? Would we be replacing the czars only to end up under totalitarian rule - dolled up in the language of equality - all over again?

We will be saved by the singular mission of a people united in speaking the same message - the message of freedom, of equality, of sharing, of equal access, and equal power, of beaten swords and spears, of shared plows and tools - and acting as a people liberated from the message of the empire, that "Might is right."

Peter's last words to the gathered crowd were, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.

How did the new followers then save themselves? From the end of that same second chapter of Acts.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

The people were not saved into an eternal life that would start after they died. They were saved into a new way of being, a new humanity, a new ethos, a new kind of rule separate from the predominant empire. Jesus' rule wasn't an earthly type of rule - it was one of kindness and sharing and giving and peace. The kind that takes the old and turns it into something new.

".....and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Restoring the Lands

The housing bubble of the 00's followed in Chicago's westside Austin neighborhood as if on steroids. The median sales price of a house in Chicago at the beginning of the decade was roughly $150K, and for a house in the 60644 zip code was 100,000. Just before the bubble crashed the Chicago-wide value climbed over twice as much, fueled by speculation, predatory lending, greed, widespread beliefs (spread by experts) that the value of housing will never depreciate, and - most importantly - from a can't-fail attitude by the banks and loaning institutions that were eager to cash in on rising prices.

As we can see, the prices rose over a period of time to astronomically silly levels. In another Chicago neighborhood, Logan Square, my pastor showed me several houses and the sky-rocketing prices that they went for as much as twice to three times to then even quadrupling over what they previously were sold for within the range of about fifteen years. The largely Mexican American residents and working class whites were being sold and forced out of their homes by rising tax properties or landlords who smelled opportunity. In the meantime, they were losing their homes and communities, friends, schools, churches, doctors, support networks.

When the prices astronomically dropped (about three-fourths in Austin overnight), many others had lost what little equity they had.

Doesn't sound like losing much to some people. Middle class whites like to say, "If you don't like it, just move." And maybe it's easier for them, but when it's been your home for a generation, and when you consider that a sizeable portion of our society is constantly on the brink - deciding between housing and food and clothes and medicine and insurance becomes much harder when you also have to factor in extra transportation costs and time, plus the thousands of hidden costs related to moving. When you consider that landlords usually now demand two and a half months, at least, for rent and deposit before moving in and that most working poor families do not have that kind of cash available, or that credit ratings for poor are low - and disproportionately so for people of color - and therefore deny access to decent living accommodations, it's little wonder that many displaced families end up homeless in the same neighborhoods they've just been residing in for the last generation.

But what if the very people of these communities had power to control their destinies? What if the property they took care of, rejuvenated, lived in, worked from, and worshiped, went to school, and shopped nearby, the property they inhabited fully - what if that property were given back to the local community? What if we could fill all the now-vacant houses with the families currently out in the streets? What if families did not necessarily need to double-up just to make it by, sharing one bathroom and two bedrooms with eight or more people?

What if - and this may sound cah-raaayyyyy-zeeeee - what if the empty lots that line every block - sometimes residing in nearly one-third of the area - could be turned into gardens and even mini-farms for fresh, healthy, affordable food? Could that even be a means of providing local jobs and meaningful work for several of our community members? What if the abandoned factories, closed storefronts and shops, and vacant warehouses could be creatively reborn?

Community Garden 4

Daycare and after-school centers. Job training. Clothes manufacturing. Bicycle repair. Computer and phone refurbishing and repairing. Alternative energy. Sign manufacturing. Specialty restaurants. Mechanics (locally-based, so you can trust them? Nice). Health clinics, including mental wholeness. Library co-ops. Music centers. Recycling/Reusing/Renewing centers. Office space rentals. Art galleries. Furniture manufacturing and repair. Think tanks for scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, mothers, community leaders, students, and environmental workers to go, study, research, teach, learn about how to holistically restore the community.

Factory (sash window)
Factory (sash window)

Okay, so I'm not the most creative. But the point is, the community decides what it needs, what it has, what it can give and offer, what it is skilled at and what skills and resources it needs to build. But it needs space to occupy, ferment, and accomplish its dreams. It needs its own space. And then it'll need less from the center. We won't need to worry about food stamps or medicaid or social security, because the community will be able to take care of its own.

So long as others are in control of our land, we are not truly empowered and we are - to a significant degree - dependent on their mercy. That is what happens when our entire society is centered around a consumerist modus operandi. We give everything away to far off places via trading and buying merchandise and pray and expect that we'll receive back in monetary value that we spend, again, on merchandise that is centralized in far off places - corporations that do not invest in our communities except on the rarest of occasions (and with the most triumphant of fanfare). We need a space of our own and an economy of our own.

We desire, earnestly, to work with our minds, our hands, and our lands.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Under the Brunt of The American Dream: Narcissistic Stockholm Syndrome IV

Essayist and book critic William Dereseiwicz wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times on Sunday called "Fables of Wealth." It's worth both lengthy excerpts and a few discussions, because its topic, a criticism of capitalism as a system that benefits psychopaths, is so rarely laid forth so brutally in mainstream press - even in so-called liberal media as the Times, even in an op-ed piece. But here we have it.
A recent study found that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are “clinical psychopaths,” exhibiting a lack of interest in and empathy for others and an “unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.” (The proportion at large is 1 percent.) Another study concluded that the rich are more likely to lie, cheat and break the law…
The only thing that puzzles me about these claims is that anyone would find them surprising. Wall Street is capitalism in its purest form, and capitalism is predicated on bad behavior...
Enron, BP, Goldman, Philip Morris, G.E., Merck, etc., etc. Accounting fraud, tax evasion, toxic dumping, product safety violations, bid rigging, overbilling, perjury. The Walmart bribery scandal, the News Corp. hacking scandal — just open up the business section on an average day. Shafting your workers, hurting your customers, destroying the land. Leaving the public to pick up the tab. These aren’t anomalies; this is how the system works: you get away with what you can and try to weasel out when you get caught...
There are ethical corporations, yes, and ethical businesspeople, but ethics in capitalism is purely optional, purely extrinsic. To expect morality in the market is to commit a category error. Capitalist values are antithetical to Christian ones. (How the loudest Christians in our public life can also be the most bellicose proponents of an unbridled free market is a matter for their own consciences.) Capitalist values are also antithetical to democratic ones. Like Christian ethics, the principles of republican government require us to consider the interests of others. Capitalism, which entails the single-minded pursuit of profit, would have us believe that it’s every man for himself...
Wall street solo
Wall St Solo - Montusci via Flickr

And on the "Wealth Creators" and "Shouldn't the Risk-Takers and the Hard-Workers and the Smartest Earn their Rewards?" fables:
[I]f entrepreneurs are job creators, workers are wealth creators. Entrepreneurs use wealth to create jobs for workers. Workers use labor to create wealth for entrepreneurs — the excess productivity, over and above wages and other compensation, that goes to corporate profits. It’s neither party’s goal to benefit the other, but that’s what happens nonetheless...
MOST important, neither entrepreneurs nor the rich have a monopoly on brains, sweat or risk. There are scientists — and artists and scholars — who are just as smart as any entrepreneur, only they are interested in different rewards. A single mother holding down a job and putting herself through community college works just as hard as any hedge fund manager. A person who takes out a mortgage — or a student loan, or who conceives a child — on the strength of a job she knows she could lose at any moment (thanks, perhaps, to one of those job creators) assumes as much risk as someone who starts a business.

He then ends with a quote by Kurt Vonnegut from Slaughterhouse 5, but I'd like to excerpt a longer quote:
America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves.... It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: “if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.
Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.

What Vonnegut says here is complicated and needs a moment to unpack. It has elements of damning truth and yet damning self-defeating lies in it. Throughout the history of the world, the most generous people have been the poor. But they've also tended to be those with the most violence inflicted upon them. The first to go to war, the first to be attacked, the first to go hungry or homeless, to last to receive medical attention, the last to be protected and the first to be unprotected. But with what little they have, they share. That's the nature of hospitality and community. That's why, when Sodom is condemned in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is for the sin of inhospitality (in both the Genesis and the Ezekiel accounts - both the Law and the Prophets condemned them for being mean to strangers and to their own). That's why Jesus tells his disciples to go from town to town and just accept the open arms and doors and meals of those they meet in their way. Because, generally speaking, they can expect to find that. It wasn't a miracle; it was the way of life. And if a town did not accept them? They were to insult them by wiping the dust from their feet.

people on stairs
People on Stairs - Patrick Moyan via Flickr

This level of hospitality is much harder to come by in America. We've been trained that being able is to be fully self-sufficient and completely independent. We've been trained to believe that if we're not self-sufficient, there is something wrong with us. We've been trained to believe that if we work hard and smart and long enough, we'll reach that plateau finally, the one we deserve - self-sufficiency and, even more anticipated, luxury. As a friend from the Middle East put it, in the US we are so used to outsourcing everything we are not able to find the assets of our own community.

This isn’t true across the board, even in America. Poor and working class communities of color tend to be more community-oriented than poor and working class white communities – but this culture of outsourcing and consumeristic value has deeply infected much of the African American community as well, which is part of the reason SUVs and items of clothing are symbols of status - are seen as a replacements for the breakdown and rape and humiliation of their history and culture by the ruling classes, who are eased by the social and psychological humiliation they've heaped on to lower class whites, many of whom blame other poor people - in addition to themselves secretly - for their status.

It is here where it becomes important to note that we need solidarity, not more division. But without recognizing the sources of our division, we cannot truly unite.

Now, about those studies that purport that the rich are less ethical than the poor?

In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

It's like we're all lost in the supermarket...

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Knocking It Out

Trigger warning: Homophobia, parental abuse, spiritual abuse

Much negative publicity has formulated around the Beat the Gay out of Your Kids pastor (all types of triggers). As well it should. This pastor, who is incidentally in the same state as the Amendment One anti-equality bill, gave his congregants a special leniency to crack and punch (to applause and laughter) their four year old sons if they started acting “limp-wristed” in order to knock that problematic homosexuality out of them. He then went on to say that "butch" girls need to "dress themselves up" to be "beautiful" and "attractive". Because we all know that lesbians are ugly, right? And that, in order to become straight, all they need is to look purty.

My fear, though, is that in pointing to him as an example of extreme homophobia, we may be doing normal homophobia a bit of a solid. Opponents of equal rights use that example as they use the example of the God Hates Fags church. “At least we’re not like those guys. Those guys are sick, amirite?

They continue:
BtGooYK Pastor is a bad man for even joking about violently disposing children of their homosexual behavior. At least we’re not like that. At least we don't purposefully beat them. Though we don't frown on bullying by their peers. If a kid wants to beat the gay out of another kid, who are we to stand in their way? We only seek to ex- their gayness by using shoddy psychiatry and shaming. We only seek to keep them from children because their gayness may catch on them – or they may practice their gayness on the kids, because that’s what the gays do. They do the gay with little kids. We only want to keep them from exercising the same rights straight folks have in openly declaring their love for another.
At least we’re not like those other guys, the say.

Soft-peddled homophobia is still homophobia. And just by getting caught, the hard-peddlers make it easier for the soft-peddlers to enforce their religious views on others. They can claim that they aren’t bigoted (and they may honestly believe that) in the same way that a racist can claim to not be racist because he’s not burning crosses or lynching, even as he’s writing newspaper articles about how Jay-Z’s basketball team should be called the Brooklyn N*****s.

What is up with the Amendment One thing, anyway? Is this the first amendment given in a state constitution that moves AWAY from and even contradicts the Bill of Rights? Can a state constitution be ruled unconstitutional on the basis that it clearly establishes a religious practice over civil practices? Because it does. Not even a good one.

So, congratulations, North Carolina! A small minority just decided that a smaller minority of you are sub-human. Like the chattel slaves of old, homosexuals are not even worthy of the dignity of getting married. And voters did this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

I suppose they’re coming for adulterers next. I’m sure the amendment will be amended to exclude fornicators from marrying. And divorcees, definitely, will also be excluded from that right – unless their previous spouses cheated on them, or they remarried their original partners. I mean, it’s not that we hate these sinners. Just their sins, right?

No? Nobody ever is going to suggest these laws? Just for teh gheys and the lesbos? Oh. I see…

Puppies Chewing
Because we all need something to meditate on

Monday, May 07, 2012

Kicking and Fightin' through the Church: Doc on Kickstarter

There is a project to help fund a documentary on Christian involvement in Mixed Martial Arts on Kickstarter now.

They are right now under 10% of their monetary goal. Here is the preview that they've been able to put together so far:

FIGHT CHURCH is a feature documentary about the confluence of Christianity and Mixed Martial Arts. The film follows several pastors and fighters in a quest to reconcile their faith with a sport that some consider violent and barbaric. Faith is tried and questions are raised. Can you really love your neighbor as yourself and then punch him in the face?

What do you think about this in terms of substance and in terms of form?

In terms of substance, I mean, what role and relationship should Christians, and more specifically, Christian leaders have with staged fighting? Does this reflect a certain theological frame? Do you think that the pastors promoting this route are promoting a type of violence and/or abuse, or possibly and alternative to it?

In terms of form, I'm thinking of the filmic qualities itself. And specifically, how do you feel about its overall tenor as presented in this preview? I must admit I get a bit wary when documentary makers allege that they are being objective. The whole point of any movie or project is that one can't truly be objective. Just in the telling, you are presenting a perspective. But, I guess they are trying to not be polemic. In not trying to make this about right v wrong, however, how do you think they fare? Do you think they should be more out front and taking a stand?

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Putting Mouths Where the Money Is

Well, it seems my conservative Christian friends will finally get their chance to prove how awesome and correct they are if the House has its way. Representative Paul Ryan "aims to empower" those closest to the problem of poverty to do something about it by... Well, by putting the onus of caring for the poor directly and squarely and solely on their lap.

As Bread for the World notes, Congress is planning on leaving such a humongous multi-billion dollar hole (169,000,000,000 smackeroonis, in fact) in food assistance benefits that thousands upon thousands of families will starve. A few members of said Congress whom are proposing these cuts suggested that local religious organizations should plug in that hole. What they failed to mention is that each and every church or religious congregation in the US would have to pony up roughly $50,000 a year just to make up for this shortchange.

April2011 348
Churches like this one in LA. (Lord Jim via Flickr)

This isn't counting, of course, the staff and volunteer hours needed for this. This isn't counting the hours to pick-up, deliver, stockpile, organize, throw out bad food, and distribute the food. 

The suggestion that churches rather than government should serve the poor is, in other words, foolishness that comes out of the mouths of people with little direct involvement in the actual work of food pantries, soup kitchens, congregational work (or lack thereof), church finances, congregational politics.

First, it's not an either/or issue. Local parishes/synagogues/mosques cannot possibly cover this need on their own, but they play an integral part of a much larger whole. Secondly, though there is a lot of money invested in our churches, most of it is centralized and/or tied into real estate which is not so easy to liquidate. 

Which is not to say that congregations can't put in more than they are currently. Nor that communities shouldn't be the center of aid. But all of our interactions are, as a friend recently put it, outsourced. Which means, partially, that we need to recover them. Which means that we need to recover property that's centralized, which largely goes to profit for the benefit of a few. A few of whom go to big churches, where the majority of liquid church assets are apparently centralized.

'Men at soup kitchen, 1971' photo (c) 1971, Seattle Municipal Archives - license:
Of course, it's all much more complicated than the way it appears here. Most churches that I've run into - tax-free or not - don't have that kind of money - even if they weren't to pay their light bills, heating, and the cost for the essential staff. Certainly not in those areas where the need is great. A few megachurches easily spend that much money and maybe more aiding some of the smaller churches in their sphere of influence. But there's no way that a Willow Creek - for instance - could possibly keep up with the needs of the most needy of such churches in its metro area, even splitting with other area megachurches.

And that's just in terms of just the money for the aid. What of workers?

There are good ways to fight poverty locally (I argue for local sustainability), there are barely adequate, problematic ways (relying on a greedy, full-of-itself, centralized US Congress, for instance), and then there are the ways of people who've maybe spent a couple days in food ministry and who spot a few people "misusing" food benefits and therefore give the US Congress a justification out of their basic moral obligation. But actual people starve when we say such stupid, ignorant bunk. "Deserving" or not.*

American Christians, join in the efforts of your local food pantry, soup kitchen, homeless outreach for about ten years. Limit your budget to about ten thousand a year for a few years (Oh, what's that? You got a family, you say? Ok, 18,000, then), while leasing - or trying to pay mortgage (Note: college years don't count). Evangelicals: Meet up with your local Christian Community Development Association-connected ministry and run your ideas by them. Catholics: I can think of any number of impoverished parishes you could join and assist.

Then feel free to speak up about the "unworthy" poor, or how the government is just getting in the way of volunteer and charity efforts.

Or, think about it in terms of cracks. What do you do when you see people falling through the cracks? You help them out, right? But what if those cracks are too big for you and all your friends to help out the millions of people falling through them? What if everybody around you was poor and in need of basic food? What do you do then? You seek assistance from where you can find it - even if it feels degrading to ask the government to help your family eat because you just don't make enough.

If this is not news to you, if you believe that the work of TANF is necessary to the survival of families and workers and the unemployed, please sign this petition.

*It's beyond troubling that a religion which posits itself on grace and the idea that we are all made in God's image would allow for such anti-Christ talk.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Jesus Is for Losers, John Boehner!

CROWLEY: This is a time -- an economic time when people are hurting and have been hurting for quite some time.
Do you think that someone who is as wealthy as [Mitt Romney] is, who has had as much privilege as he is, has a hill to climb to overcome that?
BOEHNER: No. The American people don't want to vote for a loser. They don't want to vote for someone that hasn't been successful.

Of course, Boehner may be speaking the truth, technically-speaking. The American people tend to get duped pretty easily and tend to think that being successful in the private sector (regardless of how he got successful in the first place *Ahem* Daddy's big bucks lead him to a vulture capital system where he takes over the acquisitions of businesses, bleeds them dry, lays off thousands of people, robs them of their severance and retirement funds, and has the government bail out those same retirements, while scoring big profits) means that one knows how to handle public sector money well, too - regardless of the fact that much of their private sector wealth was built from the public sector.

If the American people believe this, and believe that not being financially successful makes the vast majority of Americans losers, well, it's because we have our priorities f***ed the f*** up.

And by "we" I mean specifically "we American Christians". We still believe in the god of mammon rather than the God of Compassion. We still follow the path of The American Dream more so than the Way of the Cross. We still think in terms of failures and winners and losers in terms of how much money, how many children, how big a house, how much education.

But Jesus is for "losers." So should we be.

Steve Taylor, "Jesus Is for Losers"

For more, here is Catholic Moral Theology: Missing the Point on Poverty.

In her reflection on Matthew 16:15 “Who do you say that I am?” Mother Teresa offers a powerful answer, beginning with the standard theological statements from the creed (You are the Second person of the Blessed Trinity, etc) and concludes:
Jesus is the Hungry – to be fed.
Jesus is the Thirsty – to be satiated.
Jesus is the Homeless – to be taken in
Jesus is the Sick – to be healed.
Jesus is the lonely – to be loved.
Jesus is the Unwanted – to be wanted.
Jesus is not like the poor. Jesus is the poor. Jesus is not like the unemployed father who cannot find work and for whom food stamps are the only thing preventing his children from going to bed hungry. Christ is not like single mother working two low-paying part time jobs surviving only through access to housing and child care subsidies. Jesus Christ is that father. Jesus Christ is that mother.