Archive for March, 2007

Liberal Wisdom

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” James 1:5

The middle class is disappearing in this country. If you don’t believe me, read what Paul Krugman has to say about it in well documented detail.

It is no coincidence that its demise is coincident with the rise of conservative republicanism.

It’s not like liberals and progressives didn’t try to sound the alarm. It’s just that it fell on deaf ears. The republicans created an economy that enhanced the rich by reducing effective tax rates, enhancing the ability to shelter wealth (again reducing taxes), and offering unprecedented access to government decision-making. The resulting policies shifted the burden of paying for services to the poor and middle class, while at the same time offering financial windfalls to well-connected companies (and by implication their executives, boards, and major stock holders).  In other words, the rich got richer because the government “paid them” with money it took from everyone else. Those that had aspirations of being rich certainly were happy to go along. Everyone else was distracted by the family values slight of hand while the government slowly withdrew dollars from our pockets. Anyone who disagreed was demonized with the “liberal” label because we somehow didn’t get it.

Historically, growth in the middle class started with FDR’s new deal and continued through LBJ’s Great Society. There were a lot of things wrong with that approach to raising living standards, but what it did do very well was support access for working people to good jobs and affordable home ownership in good neighborhoods with good schools. All this led to financial stability and the sense that you could make a better life for your children than you had yourself.

Since the 70’s and the rise of conservative republicanism, public education has suffered, wages have stagnated, blue collar workforces have shrunk dramatically, and the gap between the rich and poor has returned to levels comparable to the Guilded Age and robber barons. The middle class kept pace for a while because women left home and entered the work force, but even that extra income is no longer adequate for many families to keep up with increased taxes and costs. College grads from middle class families have had to resort to financing their education with loans which leave some with huge financial burdens that require years to repay. This further delays their ability to start saving for a home. It shouldn’t be surprising that we are soon to have the first generation of children that are LESS well educated than their parents.

The working man has been going without a raise for the whole Bush administration. They felt like they were making money because their homes were increasing in value, but guess what – that bubble is burst. In its place we suddenly discover that the government that was supposed to protect us has sold us down the river to the big financial institutions. That bankruptcy bill wasn’t intended to punish those who were defrauding our defenseless lenders. It was to give unethical lenders cover so that they could offer even riskier credit and mortgages to those who couldn’t afford them. Now the collapse of the ponzi scheme called the sub-prime lending market may be what finally kicks off the recession that the Bush administration has been brewing. In the next year of so, we’re going to find out that even the federal government can’t finance a war on credit forever. I’ll leave you to figure out who is going to pay for it (but it won’t be the rich).

Faith works?

Monday, March 26th, 2007

“Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?”
James 2:19-20

Last week Pete Stark, Congressman from the Bay Area in California, discovered that he was the highest ranking government official and only congressman to admit that he doesn’t believe in God. Stark’s announcement was the result of activities by a coalition of atheist and humanist groups that offered a reward to those who could identify individuals in government who don’t believe in God.

Rep. Stark’s announcement was generally well received, though there were the requisite bleats from a few conservative religious groups including the Christian Seniors Association.

What’s more interesting than this announcement though, is a Gallup poll last month which reported that 53% of those surveyed would refuse to vote for an atheist regardless of their qualifications. Only 11% of this same group would refuse to vote for a woman. Even the aged (42%) and homosexuals (43%) don’t generate as many negative votes as atheists. The other two categories tested (curiously) were Mormons (24%) and those who have had multiple marriages (30%). I’m sure someone at Gallup must have realized the irony there.

This isn’t anything new either. A Pew research poll in 2002 found that 47% of Americans felt that religious beliefs were a prerequisite to being a good person.

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, given this bias, that the number of atheists isn’t well known. Best estimates put it between 3% and 12% of the US population.

What bothers me about all of this is that professed faith in God is clearly no guarantee of trustworthyness. On the other hand, we can pretty much guarantee that public atheists have integrity. Why else would they open themselves to the bias (overt or covert) that their beliefs clearly invite?

From the numbers, it is also clear that there are many more dishonest professed believers in God than there are atheists. So why is it that so many people are willing to trust those who say they believe in God but don’t act that way and distrust those who don’t believe in God and are honestly willing to say so?

If you read the Bible, you don’t have to get much further than Genesis to discover that it says all people are made in God’s image and likeness.  Those who profess to follow the Bible’s teaching can’t easily ignore this truth and still call themselves faithful (though clearly many try).  The Bible didn’t say that only those who believe in God are made in His image and likeness.  It said everyone.  A person’s beliefs aren’t what distinguish them.  It is what they do with those beliefs – their works that we should pay more attention to when we are trying to decide who we should trust. If nothing else, the past almost seven years have proven that, at least in government, professed faith is no guarantee of integrity.

Hide and Seek

Sunday, March 18th, 2007

“For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.” Luke 12:2

The past six months have been an amazing time for those who have suffered over the past six years.  I’m not a fan of gotcha politics, but the shear volume of diverse revelations is really impressive.  It seems that every time someone turns over a rock, another ugly administration secret comes crawling out.

We’ve got the FBI issuing so many letters authorizing domestic spying that it has lost track of them.  As far as the legally mandated follow-up to confirm that the search was warranted, they forgot.

We’ve got the Attorney General’s office firing eight Federal Prosecutors for political purposes, which in itself isn’t unusual.  What is unusual is rather than admit that, the AG went before congress and testified that it was for performance reasons.  Now it turns out that all of them were doing a great job and had the formal reviews to prove it.  They got fired for purely political reasons and the AG knew it when he testified.  For example, one was fired because Karl Rove had a buddy that he wanted to give the job to.

We’ve got Scooter Libbey being convicted of lying to cover up the fact that his boss, the Vice President, instructed him to intentionally compromise the identity of a CIA agent in order to undermine the credibility of her war-critic husband.

We’ve got wounded soldiers living in slum conditions at what is supposed to be the Army’s best facility.  It appears to be the result of funding cuts and planned base consolidation.  The real culprit, however, was an inadequate military infrastructure overwhelmed by a poorly planned war.

We’ve got the previous speaker of the house covering up the fact a congressman was propositioning pages for two years.  This same congressman headed a subcommittee to keep the Internet safe from sexual predators.

We’ve got a previous speaker of the House admitting that he lied about having an affair with a White House staffer at the same time that he was managing impeachment proceedings against the President because of lies about having an affair.

We’ve got a President promoting ethanol and trade with ethanol-rich Brazil, while enforcing tariffs that keep cheap Brazilian ethanol out of the country.

We’ve got a President visiting the still struggling gulf coast and New Orleans when the bulk of federal recovery funds haven’t been released because the states can’t come up with the required local match.  In addition we have now learned that the emergency pumps that the Corps of Engineers purchased to protect New Orleans from the next flood are not only defective, but the Corps knew they were defective when they installed them.  Those pumps were purchased from a big contributor to the Republican party who has a history of failure to perform on government contracts.

If I’ve missed any of your favorites, please feel free to add them.

I’m sure all of these things sounded good when someone first proposed them.  The problem is that once people lose their moral compass, the ends always justify the means.  Then when judgment comes, and it always does, the clever ethical shortcuts look stupid and self-indulgent.  This particular torrent of revelations is all the more satisfying because of the self righteous morality Republicans used to gain support of those who really do try to live principled lives.

I’m not sure that it is particularly good government to spend the next two years turning over every rock that you can find, because it will likely take focus away from the problems that need attention.  But I am sure that as long as those turning over the rocks are rewarded with discoveries, the investigations will continue.


Eternal Life

Thursday, March 15th, 2007

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” John 17:3

Over the past week there were a couple of letters to the editor that bothered me. They were ostensibly about a number of different issues, but all managed in one way or another to work back into the claim that the infanticide of abortion should trump all other concerns.

I know that this is an emotional issue for a lot of people. I’ve already posted some thoughts on why this is a disingenuous argument by both liberals and conservatives. The whole discussion has become a litmus test for both ends of the political spectrum. So it suites both sides to continue the polemics rather than seek the common ground of reducing the need for abortions. These diatribes energize the base and enhance fund raising.

In fact, I was reading a blog entry on a conservative site where the term “fertilized egg” is no longer appropriate to describe the moment of conception. The new term is “developing human baby”.

Now maybe this is the result of someone who skipped health class for religious purposes, but it does reveal how silly this whole “life begins at conception” argument really is. I don’t mean to say that it isn’t appealing as a concept. The whole reproductive process is miraculous. It just that it doesn’t work in a way that supports the argument that these blastocysts can be treated legally as people.

If we were to endow “developing human babies” with the same rights as newborns, virtually every sexually active woman would be a murder. That’s because, between menstrual cycles and miscarriage, 33% of all fertilized eggs fail to produce a term pregnancy. In fact the whole system is setup to inhibit fertilization. That’s why invitro methods are so challenging. Contrary to popular myths regarding stem cell research, only 25% of invitro fertilizations result in viable implantation candidates.

Even when a pregnancy occurs normally, roughly 15% fail. About 20% are terminated through legal abortions, and the remaining 65% result in live births. Another interesting statistic is that about 10% of the women in the US capable of having children are currently pregnant.

So here’s a little thought exercise for those who feel that life starts at conception and as a result abortion is a terrible crime against humanity. It starts with an assumption that will appeal to many pro-life advocates. Let’s assume that the only women who are sexually active are those who are pregnant. It’s a fair comparison in any case because these are the only women faced with the choice of terminating their pregnancy. If we also assume 66% fertilization success rate, then women’s bodies kill almost two times as many “developing human babies” as abortion clinics. With a more realistic sexual activity rate of 70% the ratio is 14 times those terminated by abortion clinics.

I could use one of those, if-God-thought-life-began-at-conception-He-would-have-designed-a-better-system arguments, but I think you get the point.

What is truly curious about all of this is that so many good people of faith are just fixated with the wrong end of the spectrum. It isn’t about when life really began because that was when God had the idea that became you or me. No one can honestly say when that was and it is divisive and presumptuous to try. Jesus clearly thought that there was a much more important message to deliver. The big promise He proved was that death has no power over life. His message of salvation to the world is that every idea is unique and precious in the Creator’s mind and that idea, once created, has no end.

Salvation Work Out

Thursday, March 8th, 2007

“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.” Lev 20:13

This is one of a couple of quotes in the Bible that are frequently used to support the view that homosexuality is one of the worst sins imaginable. The problem is that this concept of revulsion and condemnation doesn’t make sense in the larger context of the Bible. Even the sometimes harsh and violent Old Testament, when read from the perspective of the New Testament, is a story of infinite Love overcoming hate. It is the story of eternal Life overcoming death. It is the story of sin forgiven and sickness healed. It is a the story of a promise which the New Testament fulfills.

Homosexuality, however, continues to be a controversial topic in public thought. Ann Coulter used the F word to get back on the front pages. Spring Arbor College just fired a popular professor because he came out as a transvestite. Largo, Florida just fired a successful city manager because he announced his plan to have a sex change operation. In this last incident, Pastor Ron Saunders of Largo’s Lighthouse Baptist Church said, “If Jesus was here tonight, I can guarantee you he’d want him terminated. Make no mistake about it.” I thought I would take up Rev. Saunders challenge and actually study the Bible to discover if there was anything there that the good pastor could use to support his claim.

The gospels chronicle Jesus’ mission to give us a better understanding of what the Old Testament really means. His time was not so different from ours. The ruling class of Jesus’ time also used their view of the Bible to exert political control. His ideas of universal goodness, redemption, salvation, healing, and love forever changed the world. But, contrary to Rev. Saunder’s assertion, Jesus appeared to completely ignore homosexuality. I couldn’t find anything in the gospels that even came close. That in itself should be instructive, but I did some more research I thought you would find interesting.

Here’s what I found.

Abomination is a very strong word in our dictionary. It doesn’t appear in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or any of the amendments. It does appear in the Bible (KJV) 166 times. It appears in Leviticus 19 times. Here are some of the other “abominable” things listed in Leviticus – improperly consuming animal sacrifices, eating carrion, shellfish, birds of prey, scavengers, or snakes; or having intercourse with a woman during her menstrual cycle. Few of these practices reach the standard of “abominable” in our understanding, so perhaps this is a translation problem. In addition, though not specifically “abominable”, here are some other “sinful” activities in Leviticus – harvesting corners of a field, eating fruit from a young tree, cross-breeding livestock, sowing a field with mixed seed, cutting your hair, tattoos, disabled attending church, charging interest on a loan, collecting firewood on Saturday, and wearing clothes made from a blend of textile materials.

Clearly our modern sense of sinful practices has evolved from Old Testament time. In part that’s because our use of words has evolved over time too. For example, a better term for the Old Testatment’s “abomination” in today’s English is “ritually improper”, “inappropriate”, or “distasteful”. What Moses was really prohibiting in Leviticus was Jewish adoption of practices in bordering cultures. Though Moses thought many of these things should be punished by death, he didn’t particularly single out homosexuality as any worse than anything else. What there is primarily condemns the ritualistic pagan temple sex, rape, and prostitution of neighboring cultures. In the larger context of the Bible, prohibited heterosexual practices (like prostitution, rape, slavery, child abuse, and various versions of incest) are the dominant theme.

Though this is progress, it still doesn’t answer the pastor’s question of what Jesus thought. Fortunately, Jesus himself is helpful here. Rather than list what we shouldn’t do (as the Old Testament did), Jesus gave us clear guidance on what we should do, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God” (Matt 6:33). He also had guidance for those who aspire to moral leadership. He said they must do so without the self-righteousness of the Pharisees whom Jesus said were, “blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” (Matt 23:24)

To put this further into the context of the New Testament, the Jewish penalty for another prohibited sexual activity, adultery, was also death. When faced with how that law should be interpreted, Jesus rejected it outright. He refused to even acknowledge those who demanded He respond. Instead He suggested that those that were free of sin were welcome to pass whatever judgment they felt appropriate.

As far as “abominable” practices, Jesus mentioned only one. It was the hypocrisy, pride, and self-righteousness of the politico-religious conservatives of His day. “Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.” (Luke 16:16)

My reading of the Bible is that it is a book documenting the endless promise of the power of God’s love for all His creation. It seems antithetical to me that this book that is the basis for modern thought about tolerance and mutual respect could also systematically exclude any part of God’s creation. I don’t think that it does any more than it excludes those who have exotic diets, tattoos, cut their hair, wear polyester blends, work in a bank, or follow birth control (natural or chemical).

Is homosexuality between two consenting adults is sinful? God, not Rev. Saunders, is the only real judge. I’ve got much more important things to worry about because I know my sins and weaknesses. In my case, Jesus said do first things first – work on my own salvation before I try to pass judgment on others. That’s good advice any time of year for both liberals and conservatives. We all have a lot of work to do.

Prodigal Son

Sunday, March 4th, 2007

There are wonderful things happening in Washington. It is a joy to see democracy in action.

We had an administration that seemed determined to ignore international opinion; preferring bold action to broad consensus. They said that the United Nations had outlived its usefulness. They acted as if diplomacy was a tool for the weak. The strong didn’t need allies. The strong just needed to flex their muscles every so often to keep everyone else in line. Democracy, not diplomacy, was the cure for what ailed the Middle East. We invented new policies to justify preemptive actions. We claimed exception to long held practices like the Geneva Conventions. We didn’t negotiate with rogue governments; we replaced them.

Now finally after five years of war, 3000+ US casualties, incomprehensible expense, and a resounding political defeat; things are changing. John Bolton, who questioned the United Nations effectiveness, has been replaced. We brokered a deal with North Korea that is identical to the deal the Clinton administration created and the incoming Bush administration rejected six years ago. We are also negotiating with Iran, one of the other “axis of evil” nations, about the future of Iraq. In Iraq, we are finally buying (rather than ignoring) the influence of tribal leaders in hopes of a political solution to the power struggles there.

The prodigal son parable is a very similar story. The younger son decided that he had learned all he needed to know at home and was prepared to take his inheritance and demonstrate to his father and the world what sort of man he was. Within a year, he had squandered his wealth and found himself starving. He had the good sense to humbly admit his mistakes and return to his father. His father welcomed him with open arms as one returned from the dead.

Like the prodigal son, President Bush had a budget surplus when he entered office. After the 9/11 attacks, he had vast political capital too. He had the support of much of the free world in responding to the threat posed by radical Islamists. He had a nation united and determined not only to defend itself, but to bring those who planned the attacks to justice. It took him six years to squander that wealth. Now, he is finally returning home to embrace the wisdom of his father by rejoining the world community. It is a good day.

“For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.” Luke 15:24

Least of My Brothers

Thursday, March 1st, 2007

“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Matt. 25:40

I’ve been offline for most of this week because I was attending a business convention in New Orleans.

The good news is that the tourist areas are vibrant and as I left for the airport this morning, there was a rush hour traffic jam of folks going to work in the other direction. I also met some wonderful people on the trip down who are volunteering their time to help people in New Orleans rebuild their homes. If I met three people (one from Michigan and two from California) in one day on one trip, I can only extrapolate that there is a huge outpouring of help coming from all over the country.

Churches are organizing these events. The person from Michigan was on his third trip. You don’t read a lot about this in the paper or see much of it in the news, but these people aren’t out to make headlines. They are out to help those in need because they are selflessly responding to Jesus’ call. They are helping New Orleans and the Gulf states rebuild one home at a time.

The bad news is that even eighteen months after the storm and levee break, the level of devastation in New Orleans is still shocking. The President flew into town just as I was leaving, but there is still so much that needs to be done, that I’m surprised he didn’t just apologize to everyone he met. The locals told me that the only progress being made is from the volunteer groups that I spoke of. The federal, state, and local governments still can’t figure out what to do.

Regardless of your politics or your personal values, New Orleans is a great city full of spirited independent people. They have rich cultural traditions that go well beyond Mardi Gras and great restaurants. It is a city of artists and musicians. It is a city of beautiful old homes and wide boulevards. It is also a city in serious economic trouble. It is a city where the rich have returned, the poor couldn’t afford to leave, and the middle class have moved away. It is a city that appears to be sustaining itself on tourism and colleges.

It is also a sobering demonstration of how fragile and interdependent human economic structures really are. People need safe places to live, work, and raise their families. When those erode, people are forced into more and more desperate circumstances. Those that could afford to leave, have and they took their small businesses, trade skills, jobs, services, and money with them. Those that can’t look for whatever help they can find, and some satisfy their needs by turning to crime. We saw it in Detroit, we’re seeing it in New Orleans, and we’re seeing an extreme form of it in Iraq.

I’m sure New Orleans will recover, but the real criminals are those in our government who are failing these least of our brothers in their time of greatest need. I don’t know how or when these particular people will be judged, but I do know that they will be held accountable.

“They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate.” Titus 1:16