Monday, August 30, 2004

What would Jesus bomb?

Thousands of people jammed the streets of New York City yesterday to protest the arrival of the Republican National Convention which starts today at Madison Square Garden.

Many commentators are saying that the Republicans hadn't anticipated this kind of welcoming, hoping instead that New York would symbolize the American unity prevalent in the wake of September 11, 2001. Part of me disagrees. Knowing how divided the country really is, Republican planners undoubtedly knew there would be wide-scale protesting if the convention were held in New York City - a notoriously Democratic stronghold, like most urban centers. Yet they still chose to hold the convention in NYC. Why?

Maybe because they hoped to portray the protesters as typical liberals, out of touch with American values. Too conspiratorial, you say? Well, some conservatives have already started a group purposely designed to mislead through the power of soundbite - Communists for Kerry. Is this the kind of deceitful politics we want in "the land of the free"?

Enough rambling. By far the highlight of the protests/convention thus far: one clever, if simplistic, sign - "What would Jesus bomb?"

Friday, August 27, 2004

Random Quote

Time enough for a random quote, this one from the Reverend Al Sharpton at one of the Democratic Presidential candidates debates:

"I think that we cannot let the Republicans talk about values only in terms of personal morality without dealing with broad social immorality.
"So they say, if you have a nice, well-knit family, and the well-knit family stays together, you have good values, while they take day care from the kids, employment from the father and the rights from the mother.
"No, good values helps not only keep a family, but feed a family, employ a family, give education to a family."

Think about it.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

"Economic Recovery" for the Least of These?

O.k., so the send-off was a couple of hours premature.

I saw this story and simply had to say something about it. The U.S. government released a report today showing that the supposed economic recovery is not reaching the poor and that more and more people are falling below the poverty line. Here are some highlights from the report:
  • Some 1.3 million Americans slid into poverty in 2003, an increase of 4 percent bringing the total to 35.9 million people.
  • The percentage of the U.S. population living in poverty rose for the third straight year to 12.5 percent.
  • The number of U.S. residents without health care coverage also rose by 1.4 million last year to 45 million.
  • Child poverty rose to 17.6 percent from 16.7 percent in 2002, putting the new total at 12.9 million poor children.
  • Almost 1/4 of all Blacks and Hispanics are now living below the poverty line.

Given that Christians should judge economic policy on its results for the poor, we must conclude that the current course is a dismal failure.

Offline for a week....

We'll be offline for about a week or so. Enjoy the reprieve, and we'll see ya' in September!

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The Social Gospel and Socialism

Everyone seems to be talking explicitly about the relationship between Christianity and politics this week. Beth Quick and Chuck Currie both have pieces about it. So I figure that now is as good a time as any to discuss something that has been bothering me of late.

What is the relationship between the Social Gospel and Socialism?

Although many of the Social Gospel's critics conflate the two, for me they are quite distinct. Socialism is an economic theory advocating collective or governmental ownership of the means of production and/or collective or governmental administration of the distribution of goods.

The Social Gospel, by contrast, is the religious conviction that the heart of Jesus' message is an injunction to construct a society based on godly principles, or in other words, to strive toward the "Kingdom of God."

Among other things, the "Kingdom of God" has special concern for the poor. Jesus told us the purpose of his coming: "to bring good news to the poor" and to liberate the oppressed. Lk. 4:18. He repeatedly enjoined his followers to assist the poor and to renounce excessive personal possessions. As a result, the Social Gospel does have an "economic ideology" of sorts. It believes that economic systems should be judged on how they treat the poor. In asking whether a given economic structure is consistent with the "Kingdom of God," we ask: how do "the least of these" fare?

The Social Gospel, then, tell us the basis on which economic systems are to be judged. It tells us the appropriate ends. In this way, adherants to the Social Gospel reject both the utilitarian focus on total societal wealth and a Kantian/Lockean theory of economic desert. In other words, we do not believe that more total production and consumption are desirable for their own sake; nor do we believe that the end-goal of wealth distribution should be to reward the talented and virtuous and to punish the inept.

Notice, however, that the Social Gospel does not specify a means, only an end. Socialism is a means to an end.

There is now widespread consensus, based upon history, that the grossest forms of Socialism actually lead to popular economic dislocation and oppression. The Social Gospel, then, would oppose hardcore Socialism.

It's my own opinion that welfare capitalism -- a regulated market system with steeply-progressive taxation, ubiquitous social programs, a government-enforced living wage, and real unemployment insurance -- best serves the poor. But this is a factual conclusion about means, not a moral/religious conclusion about ends. If it turns out that the supply-siders are correct and that tax cuts on corporations create jobs for the poor, then I would immediately reverse my position.

The Social Gospel is not the equivalent of Christian socialism.

Monday, August 23, 2004

From today's news...

I quote from this week's Dallas Observer.

"Flood Blood: Politicians create flooding, not the Bible"
By: Jim Schutze

At the end of July, flooding in this part of Texas killed four people and destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses. Joe Tillotson is mayor of Lancaster, once a countrified farming community in Southern Dallas County, now a suburban boomtown. He was quick to place blame where he believed it belonged.
On the Bible.
He said the 13-inch rains that fell in seven hours before the floods were "biblical" and told reporters no amount of preparation could have saved lives or property.
For at least the last 10 years, all the major research on flood control has been identifying a very non-biblical culprit in modern flooding: runoff. The idea that communities can do nothing to prepare for sudden heavy rains, that people just have to die or suffer ruinous economic damage, is obscene.
Not one of those four deaths had to occur. Not one was a freak of nature or an "act of God." Those were all acts of guys. Oh, and women, too, I'm sure. All of the moral hands, male and female, lifted over the years to vote for runoff bear the same blood.

What's Schutze saying? Everyone who voted in favor of runoff, in favor of shirking the socially responsible course for easy profits and commerical development, and who told their politicians that if they raised taxes and tried to fix problems like these they would be thrown out of office - each one of these people, you and I, are partly responsible for the unnecessary deaths of those 4 people.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Is it immoral to...

So I was in Wal-Mart the other day picking up a few items with my mother. In no particular hurry, she started to walk towards one of the store's new automated check out lines - the kind where you scan the items yourself, and then pay (with either credit card or with cash).

I asked her if she saw any problem with using the automated check out line, instead of one of the more traditional ones staffed by a Wal-Mart "associate." She said she didn't. I told her that I thought it a bad idea to use the automated lines because it helped the behemouth Wal-Mart to avoid hiring more - or keeping their current - employees, jobs that are despretely needed by many in our local community. Recognizing my point, we waited patiently in a traditional line and were rewarded in our endeavor by a meaningful conversation with the "associate."

Now some may say that because it is more effecient and costs the store less, the automated lines are the high moral course to steer (they do, after all, allow the store to pass along less costs to their consumers, assuming this is what they are doing). While this may be true, it rings hollow to those who need jobs - those blue collar people trying to feed and house their children. Besides, I think Wal-Mart has a little extra dough it can spare.

My point: every choice we make - whether it be a selfish use of your time rushing through an automated Wal-Mart line - matters. Its consequences may not be direct and in your face, but
they are there nonetheless.

Friday, August 20, 2004

What is Social Sin?

It strikes me that although we've been talking a lot about social sin, trying to prove its existence by way of example and illustrating how it helps facilitate and/or coerce undesirable behavior in individuals, we haven't really defined social sin and clearly contrasted it with individual sin. A definition of social sin will be helpful both to clarify our discussions and to show why it is a neglected topic in mainstream Christianity.

Individual sin is a selfish choice made by one person which has destructive consequences flowing immediately, directly and near-exclusively from the choice. An example is if I decide to punch someone who angers me. The selfish decision is my opting to harm another rather than controlling myself. The harm to my "neighbor" flows as a direct and immediate result of my selfish decision.

Social sin is more complex. It is the result of thousands or even millions of different selfish choices by as many different people. The destructive consequences flow indirectly and as a cumulative result of all the different selfish choices. Poverty is perhaps the best example. Each time we choose to buy a $4 latte rather than to donate to a food bank, each time we spend $1000 on a sofa rather than to donate to Habitat for Humanity, each time we buy a pack of cigarettes rather than donating to a charity hospital, each time we vote for candidates who cut social programs, each time we purchase products from corporations with substandard wages, we contribute to the social sin of Poverty.

Social sin is collective, an aspect of our society which doesn't resemble the Kingdom of God.

It is easy to see why mainstream Christianity focuses on individual rather than social sin. The latter is more difficult to understand. It's obvious that I am harming my neighbor rather than loving him when I punch him in the nose. But I don't directly, immediately and exclusively cause Poverty when I buy a $4 latte. Moreover, social sin often results from selfish omissions rather than selfish acts.

But our contribution to social sin is no less sinful than our individual misdeeds. Indeed, social sin - as the sum of countless selfish actions and omissions - is actually more destructive and damaging than individual sin.

It may be helpful to "translate" social sin into the language of individual sin to make my point:

I am fond of positing the following hypothetical to people. You are about to enter a coffee shop to buy a $4 cup of coffee. You notice someone lying weakly outside the shop, begging for food. By the looks of her, you can somehow tell that if you don't give your $4, she will starve. Would you blow it off and buy the coffee anyway?

I invariably get an emphatic "no way." What is hard to get people to realize, though, is that we make the decision to blow it off and buy the cup of coffee everyday. Although there isn't someone physically sitting outside the coffee shop, there is always someone, somewhere in life-or-death need who could be saved with a small act of charity. The ease with which money can be donated to good causes - via the internet, telephone, mail, etc. - means that our ability to help and refusal to do so is almost as direct and immediate as a refusal to someone at the coffee shop door.

Although the conversion of the small indulgence in coffee into a direct choice between life or death is artificial, our contribution to Poverty by making repeated similar decisions is very real.

Almost a century ago, Walter Rauschenbusch took "individualistic theology" to task for its neglect of such social sin. Although the mainline denominations do acknowledge the evils of Poverty, I don't think they have done a sufficient job in answering Rauschenbusch's call.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Capital Punishment and Social Sin

Today's thought: who serves a role in the execution of a prisoner?

You, I, and everyone else that votes or has a voice: The law is made by people whom we elect. If we elect people that think it is okay to execute prisoners, then we are in effect making it possible for them to be executed.

It's like everything else - if there is a social problem and the resources exist to fix it (the government, in the case of criminal justice), but nothing is being done.... that is a social sin that rests upon the souls of every eligible voter.

Needless to say, we all need to vote and, more importantly, get other people to realize just how much voting means.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Social Sins v. Individual Sins, Take II

For abortion or capital execution, the weight of the burden does fall upon one person – the person that made the final decision to follow through with a certain act.

That act, however, did not exist within a vacuum – something, perhaps a series of somethings, pushed that individual into an action that they either thought was rational or okay given the circumstances. This – the social world in which we all live – is the source of what we call social sin, or the prevailing social forces that leads someone into a sinful behavior.

Baptists might say that such forces are causing people “to stumble” or to stray from their walk with God. But these forces are much more than mere individuals affecting one another – they are powerful social mechanisms that affect both the conscious and the subconscious, the public and the private persona. Christians, if they are to follow Jesus, must combat sin in both realms.

But back to the abortion example. Here’s some examples of social sins that oftentimes push individuals towards sinful behavior:

- Failure to educate people (especially young people) about birth control options, including but not limited to abstinence.

- Failure to educate people about all of the responsibility of raising and rearing a child.

- Failure to educate pregnant women about the available option of adoption.

- Inability to provide for the economic well-being of mothers and families, including health care, forcing them to believe that they cannot support another child.

- A Popular culture that teaches young people the lie that everyone is having sex but them.

These social sins contribute to the abortion decision. The social sins are also sins for which individual Christians must hold themselves partly responsible: we Christians tolerate and sustain the society which produces them.

Widening Income Gap

Census Bureau data shows that "[o]ver two decades, the income gap has steadily increased between the richest Americans, who own homes and stocks and got big tax breaks, and those at the middle and bottom of the pay scale, whose paychecks buy less." The AP story is worth quoting extensively:

"The wealthiest 20 percent of households in 1973 accounted for 44 percent of total U.S. income, according to the Census Bureau. Their share jumped to 50 percent in 2002, while everyone else's fell. For the bottom fifth, the share dropped from 4.2 percent to 3.5 percent."

"More than a million jobs have been added back to the 2.6 million lost since Bush took office, but they pay less and offer fewer benefits, such as health insurance. The new jobs are concentrated in health care, food services, and temporary employment firms, all lower-paying industries. Temp agencies alone account for about a fifth of all new jobs."

"The income gap is showing up in booming sales of luxury items. Porsche Cars North America Inc. says sales are up 17 percent for the year. Strong sales at Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue overshadow lackluster sales at stores such as Wal-Mart, Sears and Payless Shoes.

Real estate agent Lance Anderson, 38, of Overland Park, Kan., expects a record sales year, as homeowners upgrade to more expensive homes and commercial clients expand. He recently took his family to Disney World for a two-week Florida vacation."

As we begin a theoretical discussion of social versus individual sins, we must keep in mind that we all bear some personal, moral responsibility for supporting and tolerating an economy which continues to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Social Sins vs. Individual Sins, take I.

This will - I hope - be the first part in a continuing series on the nature of sin, socially and individually, with a special emphasis on how it is treated within modern Christianity.

For starters, lets name two activities that arguably could be called sins: abortion, and state sponsored execution. It is widely accepted within the church community (broadly speaking) that abortions are sins whose mothers are guilty of extinguishing a living creature - i.e. a form of murder. Many of these same church congregations, however, do not consider it sinful for the state to execute convicted (note I did not say guilty) criminals for certain behaviors they have been found accountable for, also a form of murder. Why is this?

In the first example, two parties are often held accountable for the murder of the fetus - the mother who "chooses" to have an abortion, and the doctor who performs it. In the second, only one person is considered accountable for the murder - the criminal who brought the punishment down upon himself for failing to obey the rule of law. In the modern church, these sins are treated as the sole responsibility (no pun intended) of the individual. We here at the Social Gospel Today, however, believe the blame to be much more widespread.... Tune in tomorrow to find out how.

In Praise of a Christian Hero

In the wake of 9/11, the word "hero" took a more prominent place in our national lexicon. Justifiably, firefighters who risked death to save lives and 9/11 hostages who retook one of the flights at their own peril were deemed heroes.

With the renewed prominence of the idea of "heroism" in our conversation, I think it is appropriate to consider what it would mean to be a Christian hero. By "Christian hero," I don't mean to suggest a hero who is also a Christian. I intend the term to signify one who is a hero in a Christian way.

A Christian hero is one who follows Jesus in a truly extraordinary way: one whose application of Christian ideals is worthy of admiration and emulation. Specifically, I contend that a Christian hero is one who is actually willing to follow Jesus' fundamental command, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to its utmost.

If we were to truly love our neighbors as ourselves, what would that require? The answer is much more radical than most Christians are willing to let themselves see. Christine Belue, a 32-year-old legal assistant from Chicago, provides an example.

Last month, Belue donated her kidney to a complete stranger who was in need of a transplant. Belue met Sandra Gross for the first time at a party. In her first conversation with Gross, Belue learned that she was waiting for a transplant for her failing kidney. Upon hearing of Gross's situation, Belue immediately asked her what her blood type was. When she learned that they were both O-positive, Belue agreed on the spot to give Gross her kidney if they were a match.

Gross "wasn't sure if she was really serious," but Belue persisted, undergoing a battery of compatibility tests. "The next thing I knew she called me and said the surgery is set for July 6," said Gross.

"I'm still in shock that somebody is just, you know, so nice and so thoughtful to do something like this. I feel sometimes that I owe her everything, you know, because she just -- she is a thoughtful person like that and didn't know me. Really it was a stranger, but now I have a friend for life," Gross said.

Belue says she has no regrets about her decision and encourages others to consider live organ donations.

If we do not do what Belue has done, can we really say that we have loved our neighbors as ourselves?

Belue's story should leave us with a renewed appreciation of the radicalness of Jesus' teaching, with a humbling realization of our own imperfection, and with an uplifting sense of humans' capacity for good.

Friday, August 13, 2004

The Bush Tax Cuts: the FACTS

Bush touring a blue collar worksite in Las Vegas

There's a lot of economic spin going on in this campaign. President Bush says that his tax cuts mean "more money in your pockets." The real question, though, is whose pockets we're really talking about. A report released by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office today settles the issue. Now the numbers from the report:

  • One-third of Bush's tax cuts go to the top 1%, the millionaires.
  • Two-thirds of Bush's tax cuts to the top 20%, with incomes averaging over $200,000
  • Households in the top 1%, with incomes averaging $1.2 million a year, will receive an average cut of $78,460 this year. Their share of the total tax burden will fall by 2%.
  • Households in the middle 20%, with incomes averaging $57,000, will receive a tax cut of only $1090, and their total share of the tax burden will go up from 10.4% to 10.5%.
  • Households in the lowest 20% will receive a measely $250.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Reflections on McGreevey's Resignation

New Jersey Governor James McGreevey resigned today after admitting to a homosexual affair.

The situation is troubling for a number of reasons. First, there is the disheartening fact that yet another respected public figure has violated his marriage vows. As McGreevey acknowledged, this was "wrong" and "inexcusable." I cannot defend McGreevey's actions.

Yet, I'm also troubled for other reasons. If this had been a heterosexual affair, there is no way that McGreevey would have had to resign. Bill Clinton anyone? So the resignation really reflects, not appropriate outrage at adultery, but inappropriate bigotry at homosexuality.

More importantly, I believe that McGreevey's personal tragedy wouldn't have happened in an appropriately tolerant society. In spite of his homosexuality, of which he was vaguely aware "from [his] early days in school" (full text of speech), McGreevey married twice and had two children. McGreevey described his personal struggle with his sexuality this way: "I worked hard to ensure that I was accepted as part of the traditional family." McGreevey acknowledged that he was trying to force himself to be someone that he could not be.

Had McGreevey been reared in a tolerant society, he could have acknowledged his homosexuality - both personally and publicly - from the very beginning. He could have entered into a monogamous relationship which was actually workable for him. Then we wouldn't have two children in single-parent homes. We wouldn't have two divorced women and a divorced man. We wouldn't have the governor elected by the people of New Jersey out of office.

This high-profile example of a home broken by long-suppressed homosexuality is repeated in less newsworthy homes thousands of times a year in this country.

Again, gay rights is a family value.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Bush: Why Not Just Eliminate the Income Tax?

On the campaign trail today, Bush spoke positively of abolishing the income tax and the IRS and replacing both with a sales tax. In a forthcoming book, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert says that eliminating the income tax will be the centerpiece of Bush's second term.

A sales tax is widely recognized as regressive; that is, it falls mostly on the poor rather than on the rich. This is because the poor spend a higher proportion of their income on retail goods. Replacing the income tax with a sales tax would represent a tax cut for the rich that would make the tax cuts of Bush's first term look like child's play. The simultaneous tax hike on the poor and middle class and reduced revenue for the government would be devastating.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Favoring the Rich, Even in Campaign Season!

Two House Republicans - Charles Grassley, Iowa and Bill Thomas, California - introduced a provision into legislation passed today that substantially reduces the tax burden on professional sports franchises. The complex provision (too complex for the ordinary voter to understand) will allow sports franchises to write off far more in taxes than they are allowed to today. The tax break is so lucrative that it will add about 5%, roughly $2 billion, to the total value of major sports franchises. The New York Yankees alone, worth $832 million, stand to profit $42 million from the new bill.

Hmm... I wonder if President Bush will sign the bill into law?

If comments he made on the campaign trail yesterday are any indication, the answer has to be yes. Responding to criticisms from John Kerry about his tax cuts for the wealthy, Bush quipped, "the really rich people figure out how to dodge taxes anyway."

(An independent study suggests that Bush is actually helping them dodge. Tax enforcement has fallen steadily under the Bush administration, "with fewer audits, fewer penalties, fewer prosecutions and virtually no effort to prosecute corporate tax crimes.")

At a time when we've already cut taxes on the wealthy, when we've backed off tax enforcement, when we've slashed funding for public housing, and when we're facing a record high budget deficit, can we really afford another corporate tax break? Apparently we can. Because that's where this administration's priorities are.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Economic positions of the Churches

I surfed the web this evening looking for mainline Churches' position statements on economic issues. Very interesting stuff. I was unable to find any ringing statements from either the Southern Baptists or from the Presbyterians. What I did find, though, is great:

“We support measures that would reduce the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. We further support efforts to revise tax structures and to eliminate governmental support programs that now benefit the wealthy at the expense of other persons.”

United Methodist Church, Social Principles

“One of the greatest injustices in the contemporary world consists precisely in this: that the ones who possess much are relatively few and those who possess almost nothing are many. It is the injustice of the poor distribution of the goods and services originally intended for all.”

Catholic Church, Papal Statement on Poverty

“Society has a moral obligation, including governmental action where necessary,
to assure opportunity, meet basic human needs, and pursue justice in
economic life.”

Episcopal Church, A Christian Response to Economic Inequality

“While economic growth often is considered an unconditional good, we insist that such growth must be evaluated by its direct, indirect, short-term, and long-term effects on the well-being of all creation and people, especially those who are poor.”

Evangelical Lutheran Church, Social Statements

“[O]ur economic lives are filled with inequities. Some nations, corporations, and individuals continue to get richer, while others fall further into poverty…. [S]uch inequities run contrary to the will of God. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to diligence in the task of eliminating such inequities wherever they are found.”

United Church of Christ, Resolution on Economic Globalization

“Economic injustice persists in spite of the longest period of economic prosperity in our history. The gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen. Tens of millions, particularly children, women, and the elderly live in poverty, a disproportionate share of whom are ethnic and racial minorities. Working for a just society is central to our …faith. … Our work for economic justice must include support for:

  • fair wages and benefits;
  • access to adequate housing, social services, child care, adult daycare, education, health care, legal services, financial services, and transportation; ...
  • tax systems that prevent affluent individuals and corporations from sheltering assets and income at the expense of those less privileged;"

Unitarian-Universalist Association, Resolution on Economic Injustice, Poverty, and Racism

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Thoughts for Sunday

On some of the more speculative doctrines the social gospel has no contribution to make.

-- Walter Rauschenbusch
A Theology for the Social Gospel
    I don't go in for theological reflection very often. I guess I don't really even have a systematic theology. Maybe that's why the blog comes off as much political as religious most of the time. But, I do think it's time that I give some social gospel answers to some questions that many Christians deem fundamental:
  • Is the "Fall of Man" from the Garden of Eden the origin of sin?
  • Is the nature of God trinitarian -- i.e., three persons in one?
  • Was Jesus fully divine, fully human, or both at the same time?
  • Was Jesus' birth a virgin birth?
  • Was Jesus descended from David?
  • Did Jesus rise from the dead?
  • Does the Eucharist (or communion) turn literally or symbolically or otherwise into the body and the blood of Jesus?
  • etc., etc., etc.

    My social gospel answer to each question: I do not know, and I do not care because it makes no difference. I do know that I have seen the Divine through the life and words of Jesus, and so I try to follow him. Beyond this, no theology is necessary. It is not understanding Christianity but rather living Christianity which is the correct challenge. I find trying (and failing) to follow Jesus sufficiently difficult to last a lifetime. I don't have time for theological imponderables.

    Saturday, August 07, 2004

    Are we safer? Beyond the Rhetoric.

    The New York Times reports today that North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs "both have made significant progress" over the past year. Why did we decide to kill and die in Iraq when there were much more pressing issues on the international scene?

    Despite the President's rhetoric that we have turned the corner, the American and Iraqi death toll continues to mount by the day. The situation on the ground is worse now than before the "handover of sovereignty."

    What to do now? I don't know. But I do know that we will eventually have to deal with Iran and North Korea. And when we do, we can't handle it like we did Iraq. We can't go to war until all other options have been exhausted. We can't do battle without the international community. And we can't be led by a cowboy who doesn't take his Christianity seriously when it comes to war.

    July: Net Jobs Loss

    More signs that our economy is failing to serve "the least of these": the Labor Department reports that the country only created 32,000 jobs last month, well below the 150,000 necessary to keep pace with population growth. Chuck Currie has a great commentary on the numbers today:

    George W. Bush is a United Methodist (though I don't think he actually goes to church on a regular basis and has refused to meet with the United Methodist Council of Bishops because of their anti-Iraq war stand). The United Methodist Social Principles have a great section on the value of fair employment:

    We claim all economic systems to be under the judgment of God no less than other facets of the created order. Therefore, we recognize the responsibility of governments to develop and implement sound fiscal and monetary policies that provide for the economic life of individuals and corporate entities, and that ensure full employment and adequate incomes with a minimum of inflation. We believe private and public economic enterprises are responsible for the social costs of doing business, such as employment and environmental pollution, and that they should be held accountable for these costs. We support measures that would reduce the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. We further support efforts to revise tax structures and to eliminate governmental support programs that now benefit the wealthy at the expense of other persons.

    This president would be wise to abandon his policies that have created such economic turmoil and adopt those advocated by his own church. People might live betters lives because of it.

    I would have a different conclusion, though: "vote for John Kerry because his policies better embody the principles of the Church of which the President claims to be a member." What are the chances the President will abandon his rich-favoring policies because the Church says so?

    Friday, August 06, 2004

    Those crazy Vermonters!

    I took this picture on a recent trip to Vermont.

    Brenda Bartella Peterson: the Democrat's Missed Opportunity

    In a bold challenge to the Religious Right, the Democratic Party appointed progressive Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson as Senior Advisor for Religious Outreach two weeks ago. This week, according to Chuck Currie, the Democrats abandoned Peterson by accepting her resignation after she came under fire for opposing the phrase "Under God" on constitutional grounds.

    Peterson's appointment seemed to signal that the Kerry campaign was embracing a social gospel-type religious vision. She was a featured speaker at the Democratic Convention's "People of Faith Luncheon" on July 28. At the luncheon, Peterson criticized the Republicans for acting as if abortion and sexual issues are the only real "moral" issues. She interpreted the "basic tenet" of the faith, to "love your neighbor," as a direction that requires us to help the poor. (What a novel concept!) "We think the federal budget is a moral document," she told PBS last week.

    Both Peterson and other speakers at the event called for religious people to engage politics along a broader spectrum of issues. Jim Wallis's speech was particularly powerful (full text):
    "[P]overty is a religious issue. Neglect of the environment is a religious issue. Fighting pre-emptive and unilateral wars based on false claims is a religious issue." Wallis cited the book of Isaiah (65:20-25), arguing that Isaiah's progressive "call to renewal" includes "fair and good wages, housing and health, safety and security."

    It seemed as if the Democratic Party was finally taking the Republicans head-on on the religious front. More exciting was the fact that their challenge seemed to be taking a social gospel tone. The Democrat's failure to defend Peterson when she came under attack and their acceptance of her resignation shows that they aren't ready for the progressive, prophetic religious vision that it will take to close the "God gap." What a shame.

    Thursday, August 05, 2004

    Media Bias in the Coverage of Ethics Scandals

    There have been two recent allegations of serious ethical violations concerning 9/11 intelligence, one against a Democrat and one against a Republican.

    Sandy Berger, a national security adviser under President Clinton and an adviser to the Kerry campaign, faced allegations that he tried to hide intelligence materials that would be embarrassing to the Democrats. The cable news outlets -- Fox and CNN -- vigorously reported the allegations and "talking heads" analyzed it endlessly. In a little reported development, however, Berger was cleared of all wrongdoing! Officials investigating Mr. Berger concluded that "no original materials are missing and nothing Mr. Berger reviewed was withheld from the commission investigating the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks." How many who primary get theirs new from the cable outlets ever heard about that?

    Today allegations against a Republican, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, surfaced. The Washington Post reported that the FBI has concluded that Shelby leaked classified intercepted messages to the media -- compromising U.S. intelligence and U.S. intelligence operatives. Interestingly, I have been unable to find a CNN report on the allegations. Fox did report on the issue, but its focus was on Shelby's vigorous denials. The story's title and byline:

    Shelby Still Denies 9/11 Leak

    WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard Shelby accused federal
    law enforcement officials of abuse Thursday after a newspaper reported that
    federal investigators had concluded he leaked to the media classified messages
    from the eve of the Sept. 11 attacks.

    It's important that the news media inform the public when government officials may be acting unethically. But is also important that it does so in a fair and unbiased way and that it inform us when allegations have been disproven. This type of responsible coverage didn't occur in this case.

    Wednesday, August 04, 2004

    A victory for the graphically challenged

    Uh oh, they're in trouble now: I've learned how to use pictures!

    Unfortunately, the very cool (if juvenile) website where I got this picture is no longer updated.

    Still No Real Economic Recovery

    The Commerce Department released a series of economic numbers this week showing the economy's direction: "These are sour numbers; there is no sugarcoating that," says the president of ClearView Economics.

    Social Vengeance, Redux

    The Supreme Court will almost certainly decide next term that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are unconstitutional. This may mean that we'll have to restart our sentencing scheme from scratch. While the reason the Federal Guidelines are being attacked has nothing to do with their retributive nature, their demise will provide the country with a unique opportunity to reconsider why we punish and how we punish. Whether Bush or Kerry is elected, we will have in office a man who claims to be a Christian. Will he push for Christian reform of criminal punishment?

    Tuesday, August 03, 2004

    A Christian Drug Policy?

    Last week, in "The Social Gospel and Social Vengeance," I made the claim that a Christian criminal justice system would look much less vengeful and much more rehabilitative than the American criminal justice system. Rehabilitation is more consistent with loving our enemies, as Jesus taught, than our retributive practices. That sounds great in the abstract, but what does it really mean to "rehabilitate" offenders and how is it that our system is failing to do this?

    The story of the Philadelphia "drug court" provides a concrete example of both. The Legal Intelligencer Vol. 230, No. 121 (June 23, 2004). Philly began the unique "drug court" program in 1997. The system works this way: non-violent offenders with drug addictions are given a chance to avoid jail time in exhange for a guilty plea and participation in an intensive, four-phase drug treatment program. The program has worked phenomenally. Only 15% of its graduates are arrested again within a year of completing the program, compared to a 48% nationwide recidivism rate for offenders who don't participate in drug treatment. Not surprisingly, the "drug court" has the support of judges, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers and clinical drug treatment professionals.

    There's just one problem. Philly decided to slash the program's budget this year. The program was already small, serving merely a couple hundred of the city's thousands upon thousands of drug offenders. Yet, court administrators estimate that this year's budget cuts will mean that the court's intake of addicted offenders will have to be reduced by 75%.

    Why is such a successful program being cut? Could it be our tax cut frenzy starving the government of necessary funds? Surely this is part of the answer, but it can't be all of it. A cost-benefit analysis conducted by American University found that the Philadelphia drug court actually saved the city $3.8 million between 2000 and 2001. (Less prison expense, less emergency room treatment, less children on welfare, etc.)

    Finances, then, don't explain it all. I think that drug treatment programs are simply unpopular. They don't make the criminals pay. They don't take an eye for an eye. In short, they're just too Christian.

    Monday, August 02, 2004

    Supporting our Troops?

    The AP reports today that only a small fraction of sick and injured troops are getting the disability compensation that they and their families need. But we sure had enough money for those tax cuts didn't we?

    AA 1475, You are clear for landing...check that

    Don't think we are a sexually repressed society? Check this out. A couple returning home from a Costa Rican vacation was ejected from an American Airlines flight because the man was wearing a T-shirt depicting a bare breast and refused to remove it.

    Come on people. No one is going to "stumble" because some tourist has a shirt on with a bare breast. Why don't we kick young women off planes who hardly have any clothing on at all?

    Reminds me of our Attorney General spending tax dollars to hide the exposed breast on the "Spirit of Justice" staute.

    Is this the kind of repressed - i.e. dangerously on edge - society we want to live in?

    Sunday, August 01, 2004

    Luke and Wealth

    I just got done re-reading the Gospel of Luke, and I am struck once again by what a surprisingly radical document it is. Everyone should take a couple of hours to read Luke -- not for its birth narrative, not for its passion narrative -- but with a mind to discover just what Jesus' teachings on wealth were. When you read Luke with that mindset the results are amazing:

    • "[W]oe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry." Lk 6:24-25.
    • When you go out to do God's work, "[t]ake nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money -- not even an extra tunic." Lk 9:3.
    • "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one' life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Lk 12:15
    • "Sell all your possessions, and give alms." Lk 12:33.
    • "[N]one of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." Lk 14:33.
    • "You cannot serve God and wealth." Lk 16:13.
    • "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted suptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table.... The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side." Lk. 16:19-23.
    • "Sell all you own and distribute the money to the poor...." Lk. 18:22.
    • "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle...." Lk. 18:24-25.
    • Jesus "entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there...." Lk 19:45.

    How can we read Luke and go on about our normal consumerist lives?

    Short Rant on Christian Video Games

    NPR reported this week about a growing market for Christian video games. I contend that there is no such thing. That's an oxymoron. Video games are a luxury good. Buying a luxury good is not a Christian thing to do, and therefore there can be no Christian video games.