Tuesday, December 06, 2011

"Top 10 Liberal Hypocrisies" Considered (1b): Definitions of "liberal" and "conservative"

One quick final comment about the labels "liberal" and "conservative": they are useless.  Utterly worthless.  They really say nothing about the one being labeled except he/she is to the right/left of the one labeling.  In other words, all they do is point out that the labeler believes that the one being labeled "conservative" seems to be to the "right" of the labeler, or that the one being labeled "liberal" is to the "left" of the labeler.  They say more about the labeler than the labeled.

And as pointed out above, the labels can be very misleading, and since they are typically used polemically, their function is mostly to stir up prejudice rather than to clarify arguments or positions.

Here's why I added this note: I've asserted my conservatism before, and some of my politically "conservative" friends have ignored it and simply responded by saying that they see nothing "conservative" in my positions.  Go figure.  Of course, I don't care.  I really don't.  I don't care where I fall on the political spectrum, or whether I'm to someone else's "right" or "left."  It's meaningless.  Why?  Because I'm a Christian.  That is my one allegiance -- both in my life and in my political, moral or philosophical arguments (not to mention theological!).

So, when politicians tout their "conservative credentials," I just have to laugh.  It's nothing more than a marketing ploy -- an emotional appeal that they hope will garner support from people who actually vote.  It's philosophically untenable and in fact dead wrong if one cares to examine the claim.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

"Top 10 Liberal Hypocrisies" Considered (1): Definitions of "liberal" and "conservative"

I'm sometimes told that I'm a "lightning rod."  I do seem to be able to create discussion ex nihilo, more or less.  I've posted Bible verses that started arguments, for crying out loud!  So, I do have my critics, and now and then some of them like to send me pieces that they think will convert me from my evil "liberal" ways to good Christian conservatism.  I read these, and I think about them.  The one I'm going to consider here in a series of posts was actually sent to me by my wife who over the years has started to consider me a little less crazy than she used to do.  (Or so I think; the truth is that I've become more "lefty" over the years.)  She saw this posted on Fb a few times so for some strange reason decided I should see it.

Now, I don't know the author, but the piece is posted on a site called "The Patriot Update: A Free Press for the Conservative Revolution."  You can read it all in one piece there if you like.  I'm going to post it in smaller chunks as I consider each of its alleged discoveries of hypocrisy in order.  This is the first installment.

Some initial clarification is in order.

First, I don't consider myself a liberal at all.  I know a lot of people see me as one, but I've written about this before.  Philosophically I'm a conservative.  I'm going to attempt a brief explanation here.

What does it mean to be a "conservative"?  It means to conserve something -- to believe that conserving this thing is important and to work to do so.  When we use the term "conservative" we're usually talking about certain traditional "values" that we think are important -- like marriage, life, honesty, etc.: "conservative values."  Why do we think these things are important?  Can we prove that they are somehow "better" than their opposites?  Can we prove that honesty, for instance, is better than dishonesty?  How would we do that?

Well, we would likely try to show all the trouble that DIShonesty can get one into, and that makes sense to me -- except that our world often rewards dishonesty, and those who are impeccably honest sometimes get, well, shafted.   While it would be nice to think that honesty always gets rewarded and that dishonest folks always "get theirs in the end," we know it just doesn't happen that way in our world.  Some dishonest folks right this moment are living lives of great luxury and laughing at all us "honest suckers."  If you're smart enough and ruthless enough, you can (as Nietzsche said we should) create your own moral standards and leave the "honesty" to those stupid enough to buy into it.

And of course we can all think of situations in which we would lie -- situations like in WWII era Holland, when some of the Dutch were hiding their Jewish neighbors.  If the Nazis came and knocked on YOUR door and asked you, "Are you hiding Jews in your house?", would you lie or tell the truth?  I'll tell you -- if I had been hiding Jews in my house, I would have lied to protect them.  No doubt.

So, why do we continue to think that honesty is better than its opposite?  We might simply claim that "everyone just knows that it is" along with the philosopher Immanuel Kant.  Problem: if everyone just knew that, why don't they do it?  Clearly some people think there is a better way.

In the end, as Christians (and this is the point of view from which I operate) we might have to fall back on a theological explanation: either that God (or scripture) has told us this is what we should do, or that we are told to be imitators of God or of Jesus, and this is they way God/Jesus is.

In other words, when other attempts at justification of honesty have failed, we're going to fall back on our Christian faith and heritage = tradition.  Why?  Because we think this is the best way to live.  Why do we think that?  It depends on how you define "best way to live."  As Christians we define that by means of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the stories of whom have been passed down in our scriptures.

So, we're going to be relying on the Christian tradition that produced our scriptures, and we have to admit that not everyone accepts our scripture as, indeed, scripture.  Other religions have their own scriptures.  And this means that we think that the Christian definition of honesty is worth preserving simply because we think it is the best definition available.  We could ask "why?" here again, but pretty soon you realize we're just like a dog chasing its tail, and this chase for a "final answer" can go on interminably if we let it.  I do think we'll finally come down to comparing Jesus to other great religious teachers, and I don't think we should be afraid of that.  But even then, we're going to have to argue that Jesus' life represents the best way of life for human beings -- and again, we're back to trying to define what we mean by that, and we have another argument on our hands.

My solution is to admit that we have a tradition that we think we can argue for, but it's still a tradition.  In reality, all thinking takes place within traditions (that's a broader point I won't try to demonstrate here).

So, I believe in conserving the Christian tradition.  That means I'm a conservative.

Now: "liberalism."  The liberal point of view was created in and along with the Enlightenment, and was indeed a rejection of tradition.  To be "enlightened," according to Kant (in his little book What is Enlightenment?) was to reject traditional morality in favor of "thinking for oneself."  More specifically, to "think for oneself" entailed a rejection of the traditional sources for morality, such as family, society, church and even the Bible!  In fact, Kant later wrote a book called Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone in which he tried to set Christianity on a purely rational basis (in my opinion it was a colossal failure).

So, as several contemporary thinkers have pointed out, America is by definition a nation of liberals.  We all (with only a few exceptions like myself) believe that we have rejected tradition (which we haven't -- but that's another argument) in favor of thinking for ourselves.  We believe that morality can be determined in a purely rational manner (but even Plato and Aristotle believed that you could not have morality without divine input!).  So even people like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly are liberals.  They do not believe in conserving certain values because they are traditional, but they argue for them on (what they think is) a purely rational basis.  Further, they think that anyone who is really rational will see the truth of their positions -- which is another of the myths of the Enlightenment, i.e., that their version of "rationality" is indeed UNIVERSAL rationality = shared by ALL RATIONAL PEOPLE.

To be sure, there are in America different kinds of liberals: there are "left-leaning liberals" like Al Gore and Bill Clinton (and I really can't put Barack Obama in this category) and "right-leaning liberals" like Limbaugh and the GOP and the Tea Partiers, etc.  But they're all liberals.

And I'm a conservative.

So, if you want to argue with me, at some point you'll have to dispute my claims that certain positions deserve the label "Christian."  In other words, you'll have to argue that my positions are not "Christian," rather than that they might be bad economic or foreign policy, etc.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The "99%"????

Recently I've seen this pic posted several times on Facebook:

I know those who have posted this believe that they are calling attention to the fact that here in America we are better off (at least economically) than are many other nations of the world.  No doubt about that.

Also, I think they are probably trying to say: "quit whining!"  Another sentiment with which I can agree -- at least in part.

Here's the part that bugs me.

First of all, reminding us that there are others in the world who suffer deeply does not change anything about our situation in the United States.  We've still been duped, cheated and otherwise mugged by the banking industry that created the housing bubble that burst and thus began this crisis.  And yes, it is a "crisis" -- for many, many of our fellow Americans.  There are indeed many (over 9% of us in America) who are out of work and don't know how they're going to continue to provide life's basic needs for themselves and/or their families.  Is the top part of the photo merely a prophecy of what may become of those pictured in the bottom part?

Second, let's not forget that the crisis that began with American banks did not stay in America.  It quickly spread around the globe.  Every geographical area of our globe (except probably for the Arctic and Antarctic, presumably) has come under an economic "downswing," characterized in many places as a recession.  So, if the top photo was taken recently, then those folks are also suffering because of the world-wide economic downturn.

In other words, the "99%" of the bottom photo are not separate from the "99%" of the top photo.  Those in the Occupy movement are not "whining" because they don't want to work, because they want a free ride or a handout.  They are protesting an unjust system that has been rigged against everyone who is not an "insider" to the kind of financial trading/pirating that has characterized our banking industry.  So, the starving people at the top and the Occupy people at the bottom are all part of the "99%" -- which in fact probably means that "99%" needs to be expanded into "99.999999%," or something like that.

As I walked into a pizza place a couple of weeks ago I heard a lady on her cellphone telling the person on the other end of her call that the protesters should quit whining and go get a second job.  Can we please just admit that it's just not that easy for many people?  That there are real difficulties supporting a family in today's economy?  That jobs that pay enough to support a family just aren't that readily available?  That a "second job" for some is an impossibility until we can get them a decent FIRST JOB?

Certainly I can't speak for everyone who has turned out for one of the Occupy protests, but many of them seem to understand that this is not just an American issue -- that it is indeed global, and that they are protesting not just for their own benefit but for the benefit of all those around the world who are suffering from economic disadvantage.  The system is broken and it needs to be fixed.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Good stuff from Henry Chu, head of the LA Times' London bureau, on British reaction to the health-care debate in both America and in Great Britain: http://www.latimes.com/health/la-fg-britain-health-care-20110613,0,1237142.story

In short, the British don't mind a little tinkering with their National Health Service, but the idea of privatizing it is abhorrent to them, and politicians are stumbling all over themselves in the rush to apologize for any comment that indicates they favor an "American Style Health Care System." Go figure.

In the final analysis, "Obamacare" will end up being a great compliment. You heard it here first.

Thanks to Mike Gipson for the link to the Henry Chu piece.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Voodoo Economics

I'm furious. I'm livid. I've been lied to, flat out, to my face, by someone you would think you would be able to trust.

I took a look at some of the new budget proposal being leveraged by the Republican party this week. Independent analysis -- a simple AP news story -- said clearly that the proposal would do several things, among them get rid of the health care law and to privatize Medicare and turn it into "vouchers." Sounds suspicious to me, just on the surface.

So, I called my local congressional Representative's office -- James Lankford. Didn't get to talk with him (go figure), but I asked The Voice on the phone if Lankford supported the budget proposal. The Voice exuberantly answered in the affirmative, and told me that Lankford had been on the subcommittee that had approved the proposal to go to the full House. Hmmmph.

So, as calmly as I could (probably not all that much) I told The Voice that Lankford needed to reconsider. He asked why. I told him that this proposal would cripple a lot of people -- that we need medicare and the health care bill. The Voice informed me that the proposal did not touch Medicare.

That's a lie. "Hogwash" is the most polite term I can think of here. I can think of many terms more descriptive and therefore more accurate. He's lying. Don't take my word for it. Please. Don't. Check it out.

And check out this column in the NY Times (I know, that horribly "liberal" publication, yada yada yada) by Nobel Prize winner for economics, Paul Krugman.

Notice where he gets his numbers for analysis of the Republican budget proposal: from the Congressional Budget Office -- a non-partisan office. Where did they get their numbers? They were provided by the Republicans.

So, working with numbers provided by the Republicans who proposed the budget -- what did they come up with? Huge deficits. A bankrupt nation. It's nothing but tax cuts for the rich and reduction in spending on programs that help those who need help the most.

This budget proposal is sinful. It attempts to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and the elderly. We are turning the nation of "give me your tired and your poor" into the nation of "I've got mine and I'll shoot the b------ who tries to take it from me!"

I'm sorry, but that's just not like Jesus. Wait -- I take that back. I'm not sorry for saying that.

He also lied to me about military spending. Somewhere between 48% and 54% of federal spending goes into the military. Just google for info.

But Lankford's phone Voice essentially told me I was crazy and I needed to check my figures, and that "entitlement programs" make up most of the federal budgets. Bull.

Of course, I told him he needed to check HIS figures. Had a great affect on him I'll tell you. What a snappy comeback.

Well, I've checked around a little more. There are a variety of estimates out there. But all of them demonstrate that the military is our biggest expenditure. And again, I would challenge any Christian to come up with logical support for that expense on Biblical/Christian grounds. It just can't be done. We're supposed to love our enemies. Period. For some odd reason I think that means "don't kill them."

But, even if Christians do support the military -- does it have to be so large? We are the only nation that has military bases outside of our own borders, and we have almost 800 military bases world-wide. We are an empire. A militaristic empire. If we say nothing else here, we must at least say that we could cut back a bit and then we'd have the money to take care of those in our society who are unable to completely take care of themselves.

But, the Republican budget proposal won't do that. It will take care of the wealthiest members of our society and cut out as much assistance to the lower strata as it can. It's the budget of "I've got mine!"

Parting shot, from the Washington Post (no "liberal" source this time!): the report of the words of Rajiv Shah, the administrator for the US Agency for International Development, before congress this week. Shah said:
We estimate, and I believe these are very conservative estimates, that H.R. 1 would lead to 70,000 kids dying. Of that 70,000, 30,000 would come from malaria control programs that would have to be scaled back, specifically. The other 40,000 is broken out as 24,000 who would die because of a lack of support for immunizations and other investments, and 16,000 would be because of the lack of skilled attendants at birth.
The Republican response came from Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.):

Nearly every administration witness appearing before the Appropriations Committee . . . has put forward nightmare scenarios and dire numbers to argue why we should not be reducing spending in any program. Republicans won't be drawn into a debate over what might happen based on speculations and hype.

So, there's your "compassionate conservatism" for you. Is that like Jesus? Really -- tell me. It is just this kind of thing that made me repent of voting Republican. Yes, I did -- I voted for Reagan. May God have mercy.

Monday, April 04, 2011

It's OK to be Jewish (or whatever)

Thanks to the blog of "Beach Bum," (who's been following my blog here for a short time) -- "The Life and Times of a Carolina Parrothead" -- I've also run across the blog of Karen Van der Zee, called "Life in the Expat Lane." Haven't read much of it yet, but what I've read has been more than entertaining and even a bit enlightening. She lives "abroad," and in some very strange places, and she writes about her experiences. She has written a book, available in ebook format for $2.95 (if I recall correctly [yup, just checked]) called You're Moving Where? The first chapter, "It's OK to be Jewish," is available free, and relates her experiences in her first few days living in the Palestinian West Bank town of Ramallah, where she discovers it's ok to be Jewish (which she's not).

A theme I've touched on before on this blog and on Facebook is that the Muslim faith is not "inherently violent," and that all Muslims are NOT "terrorists," etc. And it's a topic on which people like to disagree with me. Well, I think I have an advantage in this argument because I have some Muslims who are friends. In fact, I've made friends of Muslims in various places around the world -- New York, Vienna, Austria, the Philippines. The one on the train from Poughkeepsie, New York, admitted to me (in 1985) not only that he was Muslim, but "it's even worse than that," he said: "I'm Shiite." And this was only a few years after the incident in Iran during the Jimmy Carter administration. The fellow in the Philippines (on an all-night ferry from Butuan to Cebu) drank his beer and confessed to me why he was a lousy Muslim (in part because he was drinking beer!). Oh -- and I forgot the mention the guy (apparently Turkish) we shared a train compartment with in Europe who looked like Sadaam Hussein. No kidding. He gave chocolates to the kids. Nice guy! We communicated a little in broken German (well, mine was broken). And the pizza guy in Vienna who wanted to practice his English. Yada yada yada (a Hebrew expression; "yada" means "I know" in Hebrew).

So, thanks, Beach Bum -- who has some really good posts of his own.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Intervention in Libya

Just as I'm nearly always unable to watch violent crime shows (whether "reality" or merely fiction), I've been unable to pay attention to most of what is going on in Libya. Violence is abhorrent to me. I cannot stand to watch the newscasts that show bombs being dropped, and so on. Knowing that we -- the US -- had just started a THIRD war just pains me.

And it's not that I'm incapable of violence. Unfortunately, far from it. I am committed to non-violence, but in part because I know the kind of hate that I feel from time to time -- but I don't like it. I won't give you examples, but you can take my word for it.

I am also committed to human freedom, and I empathize with the folks in Libya who have suffered repression for many years. I want them to have something better. No one should have to live in terror. "Give peace, O Lord, in all the world, for only in you can we live in safety" -- this is part of one of the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer that I say almost daily. People should be able to live in peace and safety because we are all children of God.

But, though I empathize with the rebels in Libya, I cannot support the role the US is playing in that conflict. I cannot support it because, though we might regard Gadhafi and his forces as our enemies, we Christians are called to love our enemies -- even (and perhaps especially) those who would like to kill us and may be actively trying to do so at some given moment. Think Jesus here. He didn't hate (wow!) those who were beating him, spitting on him, insulting him, pounding nails through his feet and forearms, cramming a ring of thorns down on his scalp, and so on. And it wasn't just that he was the Son of God -- a ploy we sometimes use to try to keep Jesus sanitary and out of the way of any real temptation. Nope. He faced temptations with exactly the same tools available to me and to you -- prayer, fasting, scripture. He was tempted in every way just as we are. Which means he was tempted to hate those who hated him and insulted him and insulted his God!!!! Tempted; but he didn't do it. He didn't hate them. We cannot hate our enemies. We must love them. Even Gadhafi.

But, so it has been argued, if we didn't intervene, Gadhafi's forces would have overrun the rebels and made a quick end to the effort to secure their human rights. We could not just "do nothing." Intervention was the right thing to do.

This is the stereotypical argument against non-violence. Non-violence is simply equated with "doing nothing" or non-intervention, and those two (alleged) opposites are juxtaposed as if they were the only two possibilities.

That's simply a lack of imagination, at best, and at worst it is a lust for and trust in violence. Is it true that violence breeds violence? Doesn't history teach us that much? Can we really count on violence to "change the world" (as if creating more violence would really constitute a "change")? The Dr. Phil question needs to be asked here: "So, how's that working out for you?" So long as we keep our historical blinders on, we might think it's working out pretty well.

"Pacifism" does not equal "passivism." Non-violence is not non-intervention. It does, however, require more imagination and infinitely more courage. Could we have sent blue-helmeted UN troops into Libya? Could we have encouraged the rebels to follow the example of Egypt and renounce violence?

"But that wouldn't work!" I can hear the protests already. And they may well be correct. It may not, in this particular case, work. There is equally no guarantee that the violence will "work." So violence is what nations do in place of trusting God.

But it's not what Christians are called to do. We are not called to "solutions that work," or that we think we can secure under our own power. We're not called to make things work. We're called to be faithful to the one we call "Lord" -- the very one who loved his enemies.

Simon Barrow of the Ekklesia Project said a similar thing in this article. He has imagination. And courage. And he points out that it is a lie that violence was our only option. Good stuff.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Parting shot by Bob Herbert, NY Times

Thanks to Professor Mike Gipson for providing this link to Bob Herbert's last NY Times column.

I've had the idea for some time that the growing disparity between the uber-rich and the poor, with a shrinking middle class, will drive the US closer and closer toward "social unrest," which if successful might remain peaceful, but if unsuccessful might . . . well, things could get ugly. Interestingly, though, it has been the right wing folks who have been talking about "second amendment solutions." Can we read the handwriting on the wall?

Because I believe in Jesus, I believe I should love my enemies, even those who want to kill me and will do so if given half a chance. Love, not kill them. So I am not advocating revolution. But I suspect that people driven to desperation who do not share my conviction about loving enemies will at some point be willing to do things I am not. It pains me to write this, but it's a prediction and nothing more.

Of course, those folks who are the uber-rich will simply take their fortunes with them to their private islands in the Caribbean with their private armies, or run off to live in whatever nation will give them the best tax breaks and the least interference with their weapons purchases. I doubt any social unrest will greatly affect the top 10% percent income folks that Herbert talks about in his column.

Can change happen peacefully? I hope so. But it will not if the agenda of some to balance the national and state budgets on the backs of the poor is successful. Those who want to cut programs of assistance to the poor and even the elderly, and to remove health care, etc., recite the usual mantra that these programs are in essence "handouts" to the poor, and the poor are "freeloading off of hardworking Americans," etc.

Occasionally, of course, that occurs. NO ONE, not even Democrats or (gasp!) socialists, are in favor of allowing people to freeload when they are capable of contributing. BOTH SIDES of this argument are against "freeloading," and we try to set up our programs so that freeloading does not occur. People who CAN contribute MUST contribute. Again, we're not 100% successful with that, but that's the goal of even Democrats.

So please: those who think assistance programs are all about allowing "freeloading," get off it. Stop lying.

Both sides also agree that there are some people who, for various reasons, either cannot contribute (the disabled, etc.), or who have already contributed enough (such as the elderly who have worked hard all their lives, paid into Social Security, and would like to have a few years of retirement and relaxation as they close our their lives in peace). There are some elderly, however, who have such a great retirement package via their investments or private retirement programs that they don't need Social Security. If that is the case, then it would be for the best of our society as a whole for them to give it up. What that level is should be determined by a discussion at all levels of our society.

Where the disagreement seems to take place, it seems to me, is on the question of public assistance to people who are physically able to work, but have other obstacles: lack of education, children to raise, etc. Sometimes their own bad choices have contributed to their status.

Folks who typically want to cut programs for these folks tend to understand their status as completely the result of their bad choices, so completely their own responsibility. Therefore, since their status is completely their own fault, no one else has the responsibility to help them. Do they live in a depressed area where there are few jobs? Well, they should move somewhere else. Do they have too many kids to take care for, and lack education to get a job that pays well enough to support them all? Well, they should have used birth control. They should have gone to college. They should get off their rear ends and get SOME kind of job -- even if it means that they have to leave their kids in day care, and they can't really afford day care, or by the time they paid for daycare they would not have enough money left to pay rent and buy groceries. Well, it's their own fault. They could have made better choices at age fourteen or fifteen or sixteen, and their lives would have been better. It is their own fault, so no one else has responsibility to help them.

On the other side are those who can look at such situations and admit that our society does NOT give everyone equal opportunity. In theory, of course we do. But I know (and have written about it in the past) that many people -- especially people of color in America -- do not perceive that there is equal opportunity. They do not grow up with positive role models continually telling them that they can do whatever they put their minds to -- that they can go to college, grad school, or that they can achieve good things in their lives -- all the things I learned to believe about myself because I had good parents and a good social situation. There are those who believe that we as a society have contributed to this situation and as a society should address it. (Certainly there are those who grow up in negative surroundings that indeed rise above them. But, look at the statistics: there are many more who do not. ) Yes, people make bad choices. Some people, it seems to me, are probably unteachable in this regard. But as a society we have to keep trying. And the only way to do that is to have programs that the rest of us pay into, hoping that some people will find their way to "get on their feet" and eventually to contribute. It may mean we need to provide day care for their children so the adults can either go to school or get job training. If we do that, we're also going to need to find a way to guarantee them jobs after the training is done. There has to be hope. If there is no real hope of a better life afterward, the program will certainly fail.

Health care also has to be a concern. I'm baffled by our folks in Oklahoma who complain that "Obamacare" is going to cost "us" (who is that?) money. We have many more insured in OK now, so it is definitely helping some people. We've receive federal money to help with that.

But the biggest factor is this: people without health insurance will still get medical care, but it will be at the ER, and in the end it costs the rest of us much more than if they had health insurance and could go to the doctor before something becomes an emergency -- or they will not have to use the ER as their "regular doctor." Preventative medicine is cheaper in the long run than crisis medicine. So, if we take health insurance away from people covered by the federal health insurance law, we'll all still pay for their health care. It will just cost us more. The federal plan is cheaper for society as a whole.

So why is it that so many people now seem to be on the "balance the budget bandwagon"? I don't have a good answer for that. I'm in favor of balancing the budget, but not of removing the protections for the poor and elderly, and so on. So, where do we cut?

Where do we spend the most? Look it up. Here's one assessment: military spending is 54% of the federal budged, and approximately $1,449 billion. Non-military is 46% and $1,210 billion (2009 figures).

So, when Bob Herbert points out that we're trying to remove "social programs" and have entered another war, I'm depressed and even incensed. And more depressed because so many Christians think that removing the assistance to the poor and needy and carrying on three wars -- and spending the greatest part of our nation's money on them -- is somehow "right," or "righteous," or "just" or "holy." It is none of those things.

Just a few select pieces of evidence from the Bible (there are many others). The prophet Amos condemns the practices of the rich Israelites who are "building houses of hewn stone" (5.11), "lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall" (in other words, they're giving themselves great feasts), "who drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils" (they have the very best of spa/health care -- 6.4, 6) -- who in essence are "living the good life."

But, they "trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain . . . and push aside the needy in the gate"; they "trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land . . . buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals" (6.11-12, 8.4, 8.6). In other words, though they're living the good life, they don't care for the poor among them. They enjoy the good life at the expense of the poor -- thus they trade the poor for their new pair of shoes and their comfortable houses.

You can read the judgment passages for yourself. It's harsh, to say the least. When Amos pleads: "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (5.24), he's pleading on behalf of the poor. He's not just saying "avoid the big sins like idolatry and adultery." "Justice" and "righteousness" are attributes of God and are frequently used either in tandem or synonymously. Also, in fact ONLY God is truly "good" (says Jesus -- Matthew 19.17, Mark 10.18, Luke 18.19). We tend to define "justice" as "getting what one deserves," and as opposite of "mercy." But in the Old Testament, especially in the prophets and the Psalms, they seem to point in another direction. Notice Psalm 72.1: "Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king's son." The writer then proceeds to describe what practical effects will ensue if God does that: "
May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor" (72.2-4).

If the king does this, he should be rewarded (v. 11), "
For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight" (72.12-14).

"Justice" and "righteousness," then, are not just keeping oneself away from the "big sins," nor are they the opposite of "mercy." In fact, they are the very definition of "mercy." And "mercy" is the very definition of "justice and righteousness."

This is why so many theologians have pointed out that God has a "preference for the poor." Jesus never said "blessed are the rich." He said "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6.20).

Hey -- don't blame me, I didn't make this stuff up.

I don't know if Bob Herbert would agree with all of this, but I suspect he would with good bits of it.

But in the final analysis, Christians have to be on the side of the poor. And to those who say "I AM on the side of the poor -- I just think we should do it individually, or that it should be churches that assist the poor, not government": I challenge you with history. It has never been done. It may be true that if Christians all pooled their money we could do away with world hunger. It doesn't matter if it's true or not. It ain't happening. Poverty and hunger and disease are huge problems. They will not be addressed by small institutions -- nor no institutions. I suspect that excuse is just another way for we Christians to be selfish. It may not be for you, but it is for many. So, that claim is empty and needs to be abandoned.

Others will fall back on the words of Jesus: "the poor you always have with you." I'm pretty sure that wasn't a statement of a social program, and we shouldn't take it as one. That was a statement directed toward those who grumbled about the woman who anointed him with perfume just before his death -- here was an opportunity that would never occur again, and there would be plenty of time to do good for the poor later on (Mtt. 26.11, Mark 14.7, John 12.8). That's all. He's not claiming that poverty should not be addressed or cannot be solved.

Simply put, the new budgets I'm seeing proposed are immoral. They demonstrate what we as a nation value, and they are showing more and more clearly that we as a nation are selfish, therefore immoral. Do we as Christians have the guts to stand up and tell this to our legislators? To our neighbors? To our church leaders? To our President? To our state governors? If we let this opportunity go by, we are just as guilty as the Israelites addressed by Amos.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Why support NPR?

Here's why.

Because NPR isn't owned by someone who is concerned to make money for themselves or stockholders. Profit isn't a motive. Truth is. Rupert Murdoch or the Koch brothers or the Kennedy family or whoever can't control this kind of news or analysis. If you treasure democracy, you must treasure independent sources of information because you cannot vote well if you cannot get good information.

I for one do get annoyed at NPR from time to time because it seems to me that they bend over backwards to allow some voices to be heard that I really don't want to hear. But I know they need to be heard, and I myself NEED to hear them. But as I've said on this blog before, I also consult a variety of newspapers and news sources, such as the BBC and Al Jazeera (both the online news source and the magazine -- don't be afraid, you won't get "Muslimized" or something if you go to their site. But you will definitely get a different view of the news, and your view of the US may indeed be challenged. Even if you don't agree, you'll have to do a better job of defending your point of view! If you can't take that and deal with it, you have no claim to be pursuing the truth. So stop telling the rest of us that you are.).

Thursday, January 20, 2011

More on "charity"

From Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (p. 81):

Towards the end of 2008, a research group studying trends in tuberculosis epidemics in Eastern Europe over the last few decades made their main results public. Having analyzed data from more than 20 states, the researchers from Cambridge and Yale established a clear correlation between loans made to these states by the IMF and the rise in cases of tuberculosis---once the loans stop, the TB epidemics recede. The explanation for this apparently weird correlation is simple: the condition for getting IMF loans is that the recipient state has to introduce "financial discipline," i.e., reduce public spending; and the first victim of measures destined to reestablish "financial health" is health itself, in other words, spending on public health services. The space then opens up for Western humanitarians to bemoan the catastrophic condition of the medical services in these countries and to offer help in the form of charity.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Thomas Merton on charity and justice

Too often Christian charity is understood in an entirely superficial way, as though it were no more than gentleness, kindness, and affability. It certainly includes all these things, but it goes far beyond them. When charity is regarded as merely "being nice to" other people, this is generally because our outlook is narrow and takes in only our immediate neighbors, who share the same advantages and comforts as we. This conception tacitly excludes those who most need our love--those who are unfortunate, who suffer, who are poor, destitute, or who have nothing in this world and who therefore have a claim upon everyone else who has more than he himself strictly needs.

There is no charity without justice. Too often we think of charity as a kind of moral luxury, as something which we choose to practice, and which gives us merit in God's sight, and at the same time satisfying a certain interior need to "do good." Such charity is immature and even in some cases completely unreal. True charity is love, and love implies deep concern for the needs of another. It is not a matter of moral self-indulgence, but of strict obligation. I am obliged by the law of Christ and of the Spirit to be concerned with my brother's need, above all with his greatest need, the need for love. How many terrible problems in relations between classes, nations, and races in the modern world arise from the sad deficiency of love! Worst of all, this deficiency has manifested itself very clearly among those who claim to be Christians! Indeed Christianity has repeatedly been called upon to justify injustice and hate!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . Christian charity is meaningless without concrete and exterior acts of love. The Christian is not worthy of his name unless he gives from his possessions, his time, or at least his concern in order to help those less fortunate than himself. The sacrifice must be real, not just a gesture of lordly paternalism which inflates his own ego while patronizing "the poor." The sharing of material goods must also be a sharing of the heart, a recognition of common misery and poverty and of brotherhood in Christ. Such charity is impossible without an interior poverty of spirit which identifies us with the unfortunate, the underprivileged, the dispossessed. In some cases this can and should go to the extent of leaving all that we have in order to share the lot of the unfortunate.

Moreover, a shortsighted and perverse notion of charity leads Christians simply to perform token acts of mercy, merely symbolic acts expressing good will. This kind of charity has no real effect in helping the poor: all it does is tacitly to condone social injustice and to help to keep conditions as they are--to help to keep people poor. In our day, the problem of poverty and suffering has become everybody's concern. It is no longer possible to close our eyes to the misery that exists everywhere in the world, even in the richest nations. A Christian has to face the fact that this unutterable disgrace is by no means "the will of God," but the effect of incompetence, injustice, and the economic and social confusion of our rapidly developing world. It is not enough for us to ignore such things on the ground that we are helpless, and can do nothing constructive about the situation. It is a duty of charity and of justice for every Christian to take an active concern in trying to improve man's condition in the world. At the very least, this obligation consists in becoming aware of the situation and of forming one's own conscience in regard to the problems it offers. One is not expected to solve all the problems of the world; but one should know when one can do something to help alleviate suffering and poverty, and realize when one is implicitly cooperating in evils which prolong or intensify suffering and poverty. In other words, Christian charity is no longer real unless it is accompanied by a concern with social justice.

(Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness [Image Books, 1964], 88-90)