Archive for April, 2007

Strife or No Strife?

Saturday, April 28th, 2007

“And Abram said unto Lot, Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for we be brethren. Is not the whole land before thee? separate thyself, I pray thee, from me: if thou wilt take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if thou depart to the right hand, then I will go to the left.” Gen 13:8-9

Sorry for being away for a while. I was traveling for much of the past two weeks on business.

First a little background.

Our state government in Michigan just started a new two year legislative session. As a result of last year’s elections, control in House switched to the Democrats. Before they lost control last year, the Republicans repealed a business tax which generated $2B in revenue for the state without replacing it with another comparable source of revenue. Over the past eight months both parties have been attempting to blame the other for a deepening budget crisis, while larger economic issues are forcing school districts across the state to close schools and fire teachers because of funding shortfalls.

I received a call last week at work from someone who works for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. I believe he was seeking my support as a small business owner for this standoff. I shared with him how disappointed I was in the adversarial stance that everyone has been taking in situation. He tried to tell me that it is all the fault of the Democrats, forcing me again to remind him that I expect the Republicans and the Democrats to do their job. That job is to govern this state in the best interests of all its citizens. It is irresponsible to waste time attempting to affix blame when our economic base is eroding and our school system is suffering. At that point, rather than respond, engage, or perhaps apologize, he quickly wished me a nice day and hung up.

For the democratic process to work, you have to have people like Abram who seek the greater good. You also have to have some balance in the power structure. Otherwise, we end up with the same sort of excesses and abuses of power that we’ve seen in Washington over the past six years.

I do believe that the American people have had enough of “gotcha” politics and are looking for leaders who understand and practice the fine art of compromise. The next election will certainly be another opportunity for all of us to hold accountable those who have attempted to divide us.

The good news is that it does now appear that a Democratic tax plan has emerged that is gaining support from Republicans and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. It is my fondest hope that I was just one of many expressing displeasure last week, and that led the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Republicans to rethink their strategy and choose a wiser course.

Life Choice

Wednesday, April 18th, 2007

I have been thinking a lot about the recent events at Virginia Tech.

There are a lot of different ideas floating around in the soup of public thought. There are those who are concerned about the volatile mixture of firearms and easy access to college campuses. We’ve turned many of our high schools into limited access “green zones” in an effort to create a safer space. The whole concept of a limited access college campus seems to fly in the face of an open forum for exploration and the free exchange of ideas.

There are also those who are concerned about immigrants and willing to blame this incident on foreigners. That is understandable, but also short sighted. This country has gone through several waves of xenophobia. The resulting restrictions didn’t make the country any safer. In hindsight, the Japanese internment camps, for example, were an embarrassment to a democratic society that claims to believe in the rights of the minority and the rule of law. The vast majority of our citizens are here because someone came here from some other country. The great strength of this country is the fact that the American dream that attracted our forbearers still works today. Those who come here to pursue that dream are the ones who are building our country’s future.

Finally there are those who are concerned about how to deal with the disaffected, disturbed, or otherwise isolated individuals in our society who may at some time try to harm others. This is not so different from the discussion that we should close the borders and lock up all of the foreigners. Just substitute those with mental or physical challenges and you have pretty much the same thing. The Supreme Court is trying to decide, for example, whether it is constitutional to execute the mentally incompetent. As the parent of a special needs child, I can tell you that blessings come in all different sorts of packages. The more unique the package, the more special the blessing.

At the end of the day, it is all about fear. For those who don’t believe in God, it is the fear that man is unpredictable, life is fragile, and everyone is at risk. For those who believe in a loving God, that fear has its foundation in the thought that there can be an evil power at work in the world that is greater than God.

What comes to mind is the story about the Gaderene man in Mark and Luke. He was out of his mind, violent, could not be bound, lived in the graveyard, and everyone was afraid of him. Everyone, that is but Jesus, who healed him. He healed him by driving out all of the thoughts (characterized as devils) that this man had about himself that prevented him from acting in a more civilized way. The healing was so dramatic that people from the town rushed out to see what had happened. What they saw was a new man sitting by the fire “in his right mind”. They were terrified because they had a lot invested in the “old” man too, and it was difficult for them to accept any other reality. Gadarene has now come to mean anyone who rushes to their own destruction in a panic.

We have the same choice today.

In our fear and panic, we can look at the situation in Virginia and only see a deranged, violent, murderer. In accepting that, however, we also have to accept a bunch of random innocent victims and a God who doesn’t care or is powerless to do anything about it.

Those who trust in God’s power and His love have another choice. It’s the same choice that Jesus made. We can reject popular opinion, and work to see the same perfect child of God in Virginia that Jesus saw in the Gadarene hills. Allowing ourselves to see this man also frees us to see those children and all children forever secure in the embrace of their Creator. Finally, this healing view confirms that God is an ever present help in trouble and available to all who seek His comfort.

I know that some of you are skeptics and wonder what the point is. But those folks from the village were skeptics too. They weren’t going to believe until they saw it themselves and even then didn’t understand it and were afraid of this new world. I’m simply reminding you that you have a choice about what sort of world you would like to live in too.

“I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” Deut 30:19

It’s Getting Hot in Here

Sunday, April 15th, 2007

I don’t think that anyone at this point doubts that the earth is warming.

There are still some who doubt that this warming is man made. A warming Mars is often cited to prove that if both the Earth and Mars are warming at the same time, it can’t be man and must be the sun.

A NASA group recently published findings which attribute the warming trend on Mars to a change in surface reflectivity caused by dust storms. It is NOT due to increased activity from the sun.

At the same time a UN group released the most detailed study to date in which they assign a 90% probability to human factors as the cause for global warming.

This is good news because we can’t control the sun. But we can control our own behavior. We also can’t control the knee-jerk Luddite response of ideological conservatives when the scientific facts don’t happen to support their world view. We can banish them back to the lunatic fringe by electing a President and a Congress in 2008 that will listen to the scientific community and take global warming seriously.

I also think that there is an opportunity for Christians to come together in a new coalition which reflects our responsibility to be stewards of God’s creation and lovers of our neighbors.

“That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men.”

Titus 3:7-8

The Taxman Cometh

Saturday, April 14th, 2007

“And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.”
Mark 12:41-44

I wonder what Jesus would have said about the concept that reducing the marginal tax rate for the rich improves economic conditions for the poor?

This tax policy of the Reagan and Bush years was based on a supply-side economic theory popularized by Arthur Laffer. But that theory didn’t recommend the policy. The policy simply used the theory as an attempt to justify itself. Bruce Bartlett, a supply side advocate in the Reagan administration, wrote an interesting op ed piece in the NYTimes basically saying the same thing.

That column spurred a vigorous debate on economist Mark Thoma’s blog where both Bruce and Paul Krugman add their comments.

The problem is that there isn’t conclusive evidence that the trickle-down tax policy has accomplished anything other than making the rich richer. The Clinton economic boom came during a time of increasing marginal tax rates for high income individuals (started by “read my lips” Bush I). Though the current administration likes to point to reduced taxes as the cause for the current economic recovery, any potential effect was overwhelmed by the tidal wave of deficit dollars that the Federal government pumped into the economy.

At this point, however, what started out as economic theory has now become a basic philosophy of conservatives.

Conservatives argue that wealth is the rightful reward that individuals and corporations have earned for their hard work, talents, and the risks that they were willing to take. So ANY sort of progressive tax system (rates increase in proportion to disposable income) is a punishment to those who are the primary drivers of economic success. Further, conservatives believe that the unregulated free market will develop much better solutions to meet the needs of society than government.

Progressives argue that to whom much is given, much is expected. Those that are enjoying the benefits of living in this country should bear a larger portion of the burden than those that aren’t as successful because it isn’t a level playing field. Further, it is also the responsibility of government to make sure the every citizen has at least an opportunity to develop to their full potential. Finally, government should enforce a level of ethics, safety, and stewardship which prevents profit at the expense of the greater good.

To put in Biblical terms, conservatives seem to believe that wealth is God’s reward for the righteous and poverty is His punishment for those who are lazy, weak, or inferior. Progressives believe that we are all made in God’s image and likeness and that we serve God by giving of our abundance to the least fortunate of our brothers.

Rabboni

Saturday, April 7th, 2007

“Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.” John 20:16

Depending on how you count, there have been twenty or so really world changing moments. This has to rank as number one. This moment was more important than the first self-replicating cell, the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, the first spoken word, discovery of fire, the wheel, writing, farming, gunpowder, moveable type, the telescope, calculus, the steam engine, the airplane, the electric light bulb, the radio, the telephone, the atom bomb, the personal computer, or the Internet.

If you’re not familiar with the story in the Bible, here’s a quick summary.

Jesus was captured by the Jewish authorities and turned over to the Romans for sentencing. He was tortured and died during a gruesome form of public hanging. A Roman soldier standing guard punctured his heart with a spear just to make sure. He was buried in a donated tomb. Mary Magdalene and the rest of the apostles were grieving in hiding. They felt that it was all over. The Pharisees had won. The dream and their hopes for a new world died along with Jesus. They were confused, depressed, and frightened that they might be next.

Mary Magdalene however, was going to do her best to make sure that Jesus body wasn’t subjected to any additional desecration. After the Sabbath passed, she went to check on the tomb.

Her worst fears were justified. The tomb had been robbed. The stone blocking entry to the tomb was moved. The tomb was open and Jesus body was gone. She saw what she took to be two men in the tomb. She was certain that his enemies had stolen the body and these men were probably involved. She was heartbroken but also fearless. When asked by them why she was weeping, she didn’t think of the risk to herself, but simply said honestly that she was one of this man’s followers and was devastated that someone had stolen his body.

As she turned to leave, she bumped into another man and again assumed that he must be involved. She asked him directly if he knew where the body had been taken. If so, please tell her and she would retrieve it herself.

This man looked back at her tenderly. With infinite compassion and love, he called her by name, “Mary”.

At that moment, the world changed forever. Mary looked back at this man, recognized that it was Jesus, and said “Rabboni” or master.

In that moment she realized that everything that He had said about Himself was true. He had defeated death and demonstrated that life is both spiritual and eternal. She also realized that this demonstration was not only for His benefit but also for her. If this was true about Him, it was also true about Mary and every other person that ever did or will draw a breath.

The world forever changed in that moment because one woman realized that death had lost any power it seemed to have over life, truth, or love.

Mary Magdalene ran back to tell the apostles what had happened, but many of them refused to accept that the world had changed. They thought she was crazy and wanted to continue to live in the old world that they knew. But that’s the interesting thing about these events. Once they happen, things change forever.

More than 2000 years later, we are still learning what eternal life means for each of us, but what we do know is that the world will never be the same.

Happy Easter.

Time of the Season

Sunday, April 1st, 2007

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven”  Eccl. 3:1

This week there were two historic votes in Congress.  Both the house and the senate added amendments to the appropriations bills for the occupation of Iraq which incorporated the benchmarks that President Bush outlined in his original proposals for sending more troops.  The President clearly does not want to sign a bill that he feels imposes any limits on his ability to determine how the current occupation will be managed.  He has stated that he will veto any bill coming out of Congress with that language.

It is clear that Congress has the votes and the will to send a bill to the President. 

It also appears clear that the President has the will to veto that bill.

There is a lot speculation that we are going to see a repeat of the brinkmanship which brought the federal government to a halt during Bill Clinton’s confrontation with Newt Gingrich.  The difference here is that it will threaten to bring the defense department to a grinding halt, which can’t be good for anyone getting shot at.

My bet is that the Democrats are smart enough to allow an unencumbered funding bill to pass if they can’t muster sufficient support to override the veto for even a watered down version of the current bill. 

If they do, then they will have created significant “cover” for democrats like Clinton who voted for the original Iraq invasion.  Iraq will finally belong unequivocally and irrevocably to Mr. Bush and whoever is left supporting him.  Similarly the fate of the Republican party will be tied to whatever progress in Iraq occurs between  now and November, 2008.

If it all unfolds in this way, I think that the Democrats are pretty much assured of expanding their majority in the next election and taking over the White House.  This may also signal the beginning of the end of the conservative coalition which served the Republican Party so faithfully for the past two presidential elections. 

The challenge then will be to govern.  Hopefully, it will be a government that represents more of the people than we’ve had of late.