Saturday, November 27, 2010

Rand Paul's New Gospel: No rich, no poor

Rand Paul seems to be an innovator in religion, as well as in economics, sociology, and anthropology. His perceptions transcend the parochial traditionalism of religious icons like Jesus, not to mention the commonplaces of moral philosophers and economic analysts like Adam Smith or the cliches of Marxist analyses of alleged "classes". And he does it all with just a few words, saving us from heavy reading and the uncomfortable process of deep thinking and reflection. All it took was a brief explanation to Wolf Blitzer in early November about why he opposes rolling back the Bush tax cuts for those making more than $200,000 a year, if single, or $250,000 a year, if married. (See

First there was the ringing statement of his new gospel's revolutionary insight: "Well, the thing is, we're all interconnected. There are no rich, there are no middle class, there are no poor; we all are interconnected in the economy."

(Commentary: with that, Senator-elect Paul neatly bypasses the largest single body of teaching contained in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Christian New Testament. There are no rich to be sent empty away, as per Mary and the Magnificat. The difficulty of getting a camel, or a Mercedes, through the eye of a needle is only a thought-experiment, not a warning to an imaginary class of monied people. Woe to the rich? A fantasy of the hyper-religious.)

Next came, not a mere flight-of-the-imagination parable, but a telling example that revealed the implications of the new Good News: "You remember a few years ago when they tried to tax the yachts. That didn't work. You know who lost their jobs? The people making the boats, the guys making $50,000 and $60,000 a year lost their jobs."

(Commentary: the main problem was that they taxed only new yachts. Those who have the money to buy a truly expensive boat found it easy to buy their expensive toys overseas and then bring them home to the USA tax-free, as used yachts. The fact that a poorly designed tax fell afoul of the Law of Unintended Consequences doesn't mean that taxing the wealthy is generally a bad idea. It's just that a luxury tax on a very expensive item is relatively easy to evade.)

Then, the truth behind the truth: "We all either work for rich people or we sell stuff to rich people, so just punishing rich people is as bad for the economy as punishing anyone."

(Oops, uh, I mean "Commentary": I thought there were no rich. Logical consistency doesn't seem to be the new gospeler's gift area. However, his clear meaning is that we're all dependent on rich people, even if they don't exist, so we'd better treat them very well. I'll leave it to you who are reading this to come up with Biblical passages that he has deftly obsoleted.)

Finally, the call to a new and higher moral standard: "Let's not punish anyone." This is accompanied by a vision of the coming reward. The new morality finds its highest expression in a tried and true commandment: "Let's keep taxes low and let's cut spending."

(Commentary: punishment is not banned so easily. Cutting spending always punishes someone. Keeping taxes low for the highest earners disproportionately rewards those who have already benefitted disproportionately from "the system" and its physical, institutional, legal, and intellectual infrastructure. A concomitant reduction in spending takes away disproportionately from those with less or with little. So it's natural that cutting spending and collaterally damaging the poor is popular with the many of the rich. It's viewed as just another "externality" -- if they forget about the possibility that cutting government spending at the wrong time may hurt the economy and their own interests. Regardless of that, if they can keep the PR working right, punishing the poor and the middle can even become popular with some of the poor, with more of the "working poor", and with lots of those in the middle. And so we have the mordantly amusing reality that many of the never-to-be-rich are ardent supporters, right now, of continuing the tax cuts for the highest brackets. That's not surprising. For a long time, people with low incomes and little, if any, wealth have been opposed to "Death Taxes" even though they've been levied only on the portions of estates that were above $3.5 million. In 2011, after a year of no estate taxes, the tax will be imposed on the amounts above $1 million or, if a pending bill is passed, $5 million. Either way, most people have no prospect of having estates large enough to be subject to the dreaded Death Tax. They'll still oppose it, though. As the NY State Lottery advertising slogan puts it: "Hey, you never know.")

Rand Paul and the NY State Lottery must be co-religionists.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

God, Gold, and Faith -- and Glenn Beck

Yesterday, gold futures hit $1300 per ounce for the first time ever. The investors and speculators known as "Gold Bugs" are thrilled, as are those who see this new record as an omen of impending economic and political disaster that will validate their criticisms of the vast Democrat-liberal-socialist-communist-fascist-Kenyan-Muslim-ObaMaoist America-hating conspiracy.

And many of the faithful are also thrilled. There are some Christians who see spiritual significance in the rise of gold against the dollar: it may be a sign of the approaching End Times. Regardless, investing in gold is something to be done prayerfully, after much thought.

Glenn Beck, for example, seems to have made it a part of his religious vision for a restored America. He has called it "the three G's God, Gold, and Guns." (Glenn Beck Program, Nov,. 23, 2009)

Here's what he says in a video for for one of his advertisers, Goldline, a seller of gold coins:

"Here's the deal. Call Goldline. Study it out. Pray on it. If it's the right thing for you, then do it. But please study it out. Find the people you trust -- the people that I trust [with his hand moving toward his heart] are the people at Goldline."

Glenn Beck has faith in Goldline. Goldline has faith in God. And Gold.

Recently, I heard these words coming from the Goldline commercial on Glenn's show:

"I want you to ask you do you have faith in man or in God? if you put your faith in man, God bless you, I can't wait to see the solution. But if you don't, I ask you to look at gold."

Wonderful. You don't even have to go to the trouble of making a calf out of it.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Glenn Beck: Did the Holy Spirit speak?

If the Holy Spirit spoke through Glenn Beck, or through any part of his "Restoring Honor" event, I didn't hear the words. Or the tune. Maybe others did.

They certainly heard something about America's "divine destiny". (The Friday night preliminary event to the Saturday main event originally went by the name of "Glenn Beck's Divine Destiny". Just in time to avoid more massive reporting of "messianic megalomania" they prudently changed it to "America's Divine Destiny" on the flyers that were distributed Friday morning.)

What I heard on C-Span on Saturday was a smooth blend of praising God, praising the military, and praising the greatness of America, along with some appropriately sober recognition of the scars from the things that America has done wrong in the past, along with a determination to focus on what we've done that's good and what new good things we must do in order to Restore Honor and save our country -- and save the world, too. A modest agenda.

The seeming balance between America's good and bad points sounded good -- but it was limited, if I remember correctly, to our past racial wrongs. There was no mention of unjust wars, for instance, or of economic exploitation. Anything like MLK Jr.'s attack on the Vietnam War in 1967, with its criticism of his government's role as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today", or the emphasis on poverty in his speech 47 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial would have been totally out of place.

Instead, Saturday's event struck me as a remarkable expression of Civil Religion at its worst. The accepted battle cry of ordinary civil religion is "God and Country", even though the most enthusiastic of patriots might get carried away and, in effect, put Country first. Operation Restoring Honor, however, while talking much of God, unabashedly idolized an idealized, even though slightly scarred, America.

After the other speakers were finished, and right before Beck started to speak, a video played on large screens. The script deserves careful reading -- I think it's a clear statement of the themes that Beck hopes will sustain his attempt to establish himself as a religious as well as a political leader of a combined Religious Right and Tea Party movement.

I think I've transcribed this accurately from my TiVo. Read it and analyze. A piano plays a soft and ruminative piece throughout. Appropriate pictures are shown. The male speaker has a well-modulated and inspirational tone.

"Every great achievement in human history has started with one person, one crazy idea, motivated by one clear message -- [a pause while the words "Invent", "Create", "March", and "Dream" successively appear on the screen] -- people unafraid to march boldly into the unknown, the unthinkable.

"Man has always searched for a better way -- grander expression, lasting peace, unlimited prosperity. When confronted by the oppression of fear [video of young black man and white cop] and conventional wisdom [video of Rosa Parks on the bus], the bravest always chart a new course [video of Columbus] to a new world, a new world founded on faith by a people who believed not only in themselves but knew without a shadow of a doubt there was a power greater than man [video of a manuscript with the word "God"] guiding them, providing for them.

"From these brave men and women grew a generation unlike any the word had ever seen. Some stood for faith, some for liberty, others for justice, honor, and family -- the American Experiment -- many guided by their own reason, standing tall against seemingly insurmountable odds, pledging their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor [video of the signatures on the Declaration of Independence] so others, generations, would have a chance for life, liberty, and happiness.

"Throughout history, Americans have changed the world through a steadfast belief that in this great country anything can happen [video of astronauts on the moon], anything is possible, through failures and success, sacrifice and courage. We have stood on the edge [video of Washington crossing the Delaware] and dared to dream, to move forward into the unknown.

"Millions have come from all over the world to join us, risking all to become part of that uniquely American experience. They believe America is mankind's last great hope, something many of us have forgotten.

"When the world has lost its faith, when hope is gone, when it pleads for charity, America answers the call. We always have.

"Remember who we are. Remember who you are. Remember the spirit of those who came before.

"It's time to restore America, restore the World. It's time to believe again."

What strikes me through all the religiosity is that America is the object of worship, the saving force. God is merely an instrument, guiding the brave and providing for them. In this kind of rhetoric, it is America, not God or Jesus, who is mankind's last great hope. Not what one expects, or should expect, from a Christian.

That phrase "last great hope" comes from Lincoln. He said to the Congress in 1862 that "We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth". But it wasn't American Exceptionalism he was talking about -- it was freedom and the institutional form, the Union, which establishes and preserves freedom.

There's much more to say about the themes of this video and how they play out during Beck's speech and the whole rally. But for a while, just think about it: what is it that Glenn Beck is asking you to believe in again?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Waiting for the Holy Spirit with Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck is certainly aiming high. Tonight, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, he will "help heal your soul" at his "America's Divine Destiny" event. Then tomorrow, at his "Restoring Honor" event at the Lincoln Memorial, he expects the Spirit to speak.

Unfortunately, unless you're a paid subscriber to his "Insider Extreme" service, you won't be able to hear or see tonight's event as it unfolds. But you can follow "Restoring Honor" on Facebook or on C-Span at 10 a.m., EDT.

Several anti-Beck commentators are expecting a hate-fest on Saturday. Beck, however, reproves them for that, probably rightly, and says that that will not happen. He's banned all political signs and political speeches. He's said of his own speech that he's prepared only a few bullet points, as he wants to give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to speak. That would presumably involve speaking through him. He says that the Spirit often roars (or shouts - I forget his exact words) in his ears without him hearing it. So, evidently, he's seeking that still quiet place within himself to allow for words that will, as he promises, change America.

Glenn Beck also promises this: "You're going to see the Spirit of God unleashed". And adds: "unlike you have probably ever seen it before." Then, modestly qualifying his claim, he said "At least at a public function."

So be prepared.

Brother Glenn's promise calls to mind a passage from Jeremiah that I was given to read as a lector at church two Sundays ago. It's chapter 23, beginning at the 23rd verse. The most pertinent lines are verses 25-29:

"I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, "I have dreamed, I have dreamed!" How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back — those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart. They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord. Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?"

Martin Luther King, Jr., had a dream. A hope, not a prophecy. What does Glenn Beck have? A vision of the Divine Destiny of our nation-state. (It's good that he despises the concept of Manifest Destiny, but Divine Destiny strikes me as much more presumptuous.)

"Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully." What will we hear from Glenn? Should his promises -- or boasts -- lead us to think it will be another example of "the deceit of their own hearts"?

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Liz's Question - or Why I Don't Do Theology

Over at the CrossLeft site,a new participant, Bud Stark, has written several interesting posts on issues of theology, designed universe, science, and first things. God vs Stephen Hawking's Unbound Theory, Richard Dawkins, Witness to Eden, and Weinberg vs a designed universe.

A fundamental point is that there's no good scientific explanation for why anything exists. But the problem extends farther than that.

My daughter expressed the issue in its most unsophisticated and unanswerable terms when she was 6 or 7. She was riding in the back seat with one of her brothers and with another in a child's car seat in the front (this was before child seats were mandated to go in the back seat). My wife, running late on errands, was making a left turn at rush hour at a particularly busy intersection (N. Mills, along the railroad tracks, and Fortification, for anyone who's familiar with Jackson MS). As she finally started to pull out into the intersection, Liz piped up, without any preliminaries, with "what I want to know is who made God?" Janet kept her eyes on the road and the oncoming traffic.

Liz's question pretty much says it for me when it comes to trying to deal with the concepts of infinite time and space. So I don't do theology. Instead, there's action. For example, in anthropology, there's a term for one variety of Applied Anthropology. It's called Action Anthropology and implies activism by anthropologists in using anthropological knowledge to try to solve societal problems. And that kind of activism also implies commitment to the people and community that the anthropologist is working with. So that's where I wound up when I was doing anthropology.

Similarly, I like the idea of Action Christianity -- following the Jesus Way without theological speculation. It has much in common with Liberation Theology.


Thursday, October 01, 2009

Stevie's song

"I could fly like a bird. I could bark like a big black dog. I could sleep like a baby in a crib."

Not much to this little song sung 50 years ago by my oldest son when he was three. It was, I think, the only song he ever made up, music not being his great gift. (Logic and computers are his major things.) The tune was simple and chant-like, with asymmetric accents on each indefinite article. And I still remember it. His song struck me at the time as a neat little expression of what people are looking for; a summary of what the child (and the child in us) feels and wants to keep feeling.

Stevie sang this as he and I walked east on W. 95th St. in Manhattan, towards Broadway, on a bright cool morning. A pigeon had fluttered up from the sidewalk in front of us and flew up and away over the brownstone rowhouses. Then a dog started barking quite cheerfully from a first floor window in a brownstone on the other side of the street. His tail was wagging; there was no hint of aggression in his tone. Just announcing his presence.

It was a good time to be out and about in the world with Daddy right there for protection.

The symbolism is trite and obvious -- soaring birds are a stock image of aspiration and freedom, of cutting loose from mundane constraints. (Steve went on much later to get a license to fly small planes and then to become a glider pilot and, for a couple of decades, a volunteer trainer of glider pilots for the Gliding Club at the University of Illinois.)

And the barking dog was a perfect exemplar of assertiveness without aggression. Just making his statement and claiming his place at the boundary of home and street.

And the sleeping baby. Pretty simple.

Stevie neatly covered the emotional range of his world: growing into freedom, becoming a sociably assertive individual, and feeling secure. Who could ask for anything more?

That's a good foundation for moving on to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly -- no matter what one's belief system might be.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Simple Gifts

I love the Shakers' music. Hardly a day goes by that I don't sing for myself "Simple Gifts" and one or two other Shaker songs. I was very pleased when "Simple Gifts" made it into the Episcopal hymnbook.

And so I was extremely pleased to hear it played in an arrangement by John Williams, "Air and Simple Gifts", for violin, cello, clarinet, and piano at today's inaugural ceremony. An extra pleasure was that the violinist was Itzhak Perlman and the cellist was Yo-Yo Ma, who always visibly enjoys himself and his collaboration with other musicians so much -- and the clarinetist, whom I hadn't heard of before, played with a beautiful tone as befits a principal of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra.

When George W. Bush was campaigning in 2000, he said "I think the United States must be humble" in its dealings with other nations. Right.

Now comes Barack Obama who has pledged to expand the forces and the fighting in Afghanistan. Still, in his inaugural speech, he balanced a bit of toughness with offers of friendship and cooperation, and a recommitment to high national ideals.

I pray that he does better with the theme of "Simple Gifts" than Bush did with his version of humility. For "Simple Gifts" is all about humility. Great Powers need humility, especially when the limits of power have been made painfully clear. The temptation to overcompensate with a display of armed machismo is hard to resist. To bow, to bend, to adapt -- that's such a comedown. As Arnold Schwarzenegger would say, that's for girlie men. Like Jesus.

So -- here are words to sing and to live by:

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

(Repeat -- almost all Shaker songs repeat each stanza)

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed.
To turn, turn, will be our delight,
Till in turning, turning, we come round right.


"Turning", of course, means repentance. In turning, we come round right, heading in the right direction for following the right Way. The gift is to be free of avarice, covetousness, envy, and pride. And the love and exercise of domination and power.

KISS -- Keep it simple, uh, Shakers.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Bush's Farewell: patriotic sin

President Bush's "Farewell Address" has been dismissed, I think justly, as yet another example of denial and delusion, and ridiculed as superficial and inane. But one line in the speech is seriously disturbing -- or should be -- to "people of faith". One could call it "heretical" if that word wasn't so out of favor among anti-judgmental progressives. Yet, to my knowledge, it has gone unmentioned by his friends and foes alike.

The line is in the next to last paragraph: "It has been the privilege of a lifetime to serve as your president. There have been good days and tough days. But every day I have been inspired by the greatness of our country, and uplifted by the goodness of our people. I have been blessed to represent this nation we love. And I will always be honored to carry a title that means more to me than any other — citizen of the United States of America."

That last sentence is gratifyingly humble in its lifting up of the status of "citizen" above that of "president". It's a fine and unusual declaration of democratic values. I find it odd, however, that those who proclaim that ours is a Christian Nation haven't questioned the faith and the priorities of one who ranks the title of "citizen" higher than that of "Christian" or "follower of Jesus".

The slogan "God and country" so often comes out as "Country and God" Patriotism, in the sense of a simple fondness for one's home country and culture, is a benign-enough emotion but when nationalistic fervor elevates it to supreme status, it usurps the place that the faithful are supposed to reserve for their religious commitments.

"Put not your trust in princes" is a well-known Biblical warning (Psalms 146 and 118) against faith in the power of the state and its rulers. Faith in the self-proclaimed greatness of one's country and the self-proclaimed goodness of one's people is similarly suspect. We are, after all, despite the familiarity of our country's places and routines, describable as sojourners in a strange land, a phrase rooted in the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus (with an echo in the Letter to the Hebrews}.

Sojourners have to keep a wary and critical eye on their strange and possibly dangerous surroundings. But comfortable familiarity with seemingly 'normal' ways dulls the analytical and critical capacities, thus clouding the sojourners' discernment of their true way. The acceptance of the 'normal' makes it easier to avoid the conflicts that are inherent in the relationship between Jesus and Caesar, between non-violence and violence, between justice and exploitation.

I have to conclude that there's hypocrisy and sin in a patriotism that puts country first. Loving your home is fine, but it's not the thing of ultimate value. Thinking of it as a fine mansion when it has many of the characteristics of a tenement is delusional. And destructive of faith -- and of the country, too.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Eve: Scrooged, almost...

...but saved by a Ghost of Christmases Past, Present, and it is to be hoped, Yet To Come.

December 24, 2008: A bummer of a day after a bummer of a couple of weeks. After finally recovering from three days of camping out down the street in a wood-stove-heated couple of rooms in our son James' house during a power failure, and two more days in a hotel waiting for the power and daily life to be restored, my wife and I, after a couple more days of feeling merely tired but not so stressed out, then got wiped out by powerful colds. Nothing fancy like flu -- for me it was just a day of feeling lousy followed by a whole night with a constantly streaming nose followed by a day of sneezing and coughing followed by a day and a night of a painfully sore throat followed by a day of deeper coughing and then a day of intermittent mild reminiscing with the wispy spirits of former symptoms. Lots of teas and honey and lozenges along the way, and little or no fever. And then the blahs. I haven't gone beyond our front and back porches since forever, and Janet has gone out on an errand only once. No last minute Christmas shopping for us.

So there I was in the early evening, at the dining room table eating scrambled eggs with red peppers and hot sauce and toast while Janet was eating hers in the kitchen, without the hot sauce and too bummed out to move or talk. She had said earlier that this is her worst Christmas. She really feels rotten. And I suddenly felt as if I were channeling the Alistair Sims version of Scrooge eating his Christmas Eve gruel in his cold, barely lit house. Alone and dreary.

Janet and I had recruited substitutes to take our places as the appointed lectors for the Christmas Eve service at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, only a mile or so from our house, so the cheering effects of friends, music, liturgy, and focused emotion wouldn't be available. And we felt the loss of our only liturgical function and one of our last remaining theatrical pleasures, the public reading of the Bible with proper attention to its dramatic aspects -- lively and forceful, emotional and heartfelt, though with the restraint and discipline appropriate for that 'performance venue'. And there's the always great food afterward....

But then our son James and granddaughter Hannah came in and we had a few small laughs. He didn't stay long but Hannah went upstairs to use one of our computers, as is her custom after having exceeded her computer time allotment at home. And I went upstairs, too, and read some emails, wrote some stuff, made two small donations and a largish one, and wrote my children about the one, the larger one, that I had made in their names as their Christmas presents, as a memorial to one of my best friends. That felt a little better, particularly after our daughter quickly emailed back about how pleased she was with her present.

But what really made the evening was a video. Friday, I had sleepily seen part of an interview on BBC with two ex-hostages -- a journalist, Alan Johnston, who had been kidnapped in Gaza and held four months, interviewing Ingrid Betancourt, who was held for almost 6 1/2 years by the FARC guerillas in Colombia. She had struck me as being extraordinary - just as the French newspaper La Monde had described her: beautiful, fragile, and strong. So tonight I looked up the video on the web. It's only part of a much longer interview, but it's a very telling part. And there's some text there which covers other parts of the interview.

There's also an article in The Guardian/Observer based on an interview with her. It too is worth reading for background and for more of her extraordinary story of extraordinary strength and spirituality. (Yeah, that's a lot of "extraordinary"s; I think I'm in love.)

So I felt moved to transcribe part of the video interview. If you're not familiar with her story, she had been kidnapped while campaigning for the Presidency of Colombia and had put herself in danger by taking the risk of traveling into FARC territory. No other national politician had done that. And she endured torture and humiliation that she is not yet ready to discuss fully, some of which she says should always "stay in the jungle". When she talks in the interview of "forgiving yourself", she's referring both to the pain caused to family and to any shame over failures in behaving well in captivity.

Toward the end of the 3 minute clip, Alan Johnston asks her if the experience had changed her.

She said: "It was a mutation, not only a transformation."

Alan: "It's easier to be empathetic?"

Ingrid: "Oh, very. God, yes. You can understand everything and forgive everything. You can...

Alan: "Really?"

Ingrid: "Oh yes."

Alan: "You're forgiving your captors?"

Ingrid: "Ohh, yes. And those are...I mean...not all, but some of them are very easy to forgive. Not others, but, of course, you know, you have to pick. But then, no, you forgive everything -- and you also have to forgive also the ones who forgot you, and that you loved, and didn't move a finger to help you. That's hard, but you forgive, also, that. But the real hard thing is to forgive yourself."

She then asked Alan: "Did you forgive yourself?" Alan looked down with a bit of a smile. Ingrid laughed and said with delight, "Yes you have. Yes you have. Oh, I'm so glad." And thus ended the video clip.

I think you have to see her face as she says these things. There's warmth and sensitivity, thoughtfulness and tough realism along with vulnerability and a winning joy. As a Ghost of Christmas Past, Ingrid Betancourt can show us terrible things -- things that persist and flourish in Christmas Present and will continue to persist and, alas, flourish in Christmases Yet To Come. But as a Ghost of Christmas Present, she shows the liberating power of forgiveness, something that still has almost no place in public life, business, or international affairs. And as a Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, she's one more Spirit pointing a slender hand to The Way that Pathfinders have blazed.

Although during her captivity, she wove a rosary out of string she saved from the repairing of guerillas' ammunition belts that she was forced to do, she rejected the suggestion that her spirituality is exclusively an expression of what the Guardian/Observer interviewer called "redemptive Christianity". "You and I can call it that, but it is no specific faith. It could be any religion. It is a deep belief in God and the human spirit." Or something like 'the Tao that can be named is not the true [or actual or eternal] Tao'?

Merry Christmas -- or as they say in England, Happy Christmas. Perhaps 'happy' runs a little deeper than 'merry'.

And here's to empathic mutations that go beyond transformation, however painful the process.


Monday, August 25, 2008

A Labor Day op ed or bulletin insert

This piece is generic down to the dotted line. The rest shows what we're doing locally in our region. The first two sentences of the next to last paragraph are also "generic".

LABOR DAY -- what is it?

The last holiday of summer? A commemoration of a vaguely understood history of labor in the USA, and the achievements of unions in bringing about middle-class standards of living, the 8-hour workday and the 40-hour week, and the end of child labor in our factories? An honoring of the human right of association, the right of workers to organize and bargain for better pay and better working conditions? Labor Day is all of the above, plus an affirmation of our faith commitment to Economic Justice, deeply rooted in our sacred scriptures.

In the Torah, we find mandates for worker justice, such as Deuteronomy 24:14-15: "You shall not withhold the wages of the poor and needy laborers…otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you."

In the words and deeds of Jesus and the letters of the New Testament, we find the good news proclaimed to the poor and specific admonitions, such as: "The wages of laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out…and have reached the ears of the Lord" (James 5:4).

The Qur'an reminds the community of Islam about its duty to promote fairness and economic justice for all people: "And O my people! Give just measure and weight, nor withhold from the people the things that are their due" (Quran 11:85).

Our faith traditions are united in honoring the dignity of labor. Our scriptures emphasize the importance of equity and justice in matters of wealth and work. They agree in insisting that the employer-worker relationship must be based on justice and mutual consent. This requires us to grapple with the problem of defining what is justice in employer-worker relationships in a society and world economy that’s very different from the societies described in the world’s great scriptures

On Labor Day, religious congregations across the country have an opportunity to reflect on these things, and to think about how our shared values might be more fully expressed in our economic life.


Locally, the Labor-Religion Coalition of the Capital District, as an affiliate of the NYS Labor-Religion Coalition and of the national organizations Jobs with Justice and Interfaith Worker Justice, offers congregations resources on faith-and-labor issues from various faith perspectives and also on current worker justice issues. IIn addition, in this "Labor in the Pulpits/on the Bimah/in the Minbar" program, the Coalition picks out, each year, one issue as its advocacy focus for Labor Day.

Since so many people are out of town in August and don’t have time to schedule Labor Day weekend programs, the Coalition is extending Labor Day into Labor Month. During all of September, the Coalition can provide speakers and materials on this year's Labor Day local advocacy issue, the Employee Free Choice Act. This bill is an attempt to remove obstacles to union organizing that have developed during recent decades. Naturally, it’s very contentious, which makes it a suitable issue to take up in adult study groups and “peace and justice” committees where the pros and cons can be argued out and worked through. Those who agree with the bill might want to sign a postcard in support of it.

So, for Labor Day and Labor Month, we ask you to pray for working people, especially low-wage earners and those who are exploited, both at home and abroad. Remember to ask questions about how workers are treated; speak up in support of working people who are seeking respect and a voice in their working situations. And call the Labor-Religion Coalition for a speaker and information on the Employee Free Choice Act. We’ll be distributing and collecting the postcards for the rest of the year, to give to the new president in January.

[The LRC of the Capital District is an independent coalition of congregations, labor unions, community groups, and individuals. Its focus is on the struggles of low-wage workers for justice, at the point of convergence of our faith commitments with the best values of the labor movement. For more information, contact Marjorie DeVoe, coordinator, at 482-5595 or]

LABOR DAY: Labor in the Pulpits

I had meant to post this last month. It's a message from Interfaith Worker Justice about planning a Labor Day worship service or other event that focuses on worker justice. Think about it for next year.

LABOR in the PULPITS, on the BIMAH, in the MINBAR

Planning a Labor Day Weekend service focused on worker justice issues

Organizing a service on worker justice over Labor Day weekend is a great opportunity for your congregation to recognize the sacred work of all its members and support low-wage workers’ struggles for justice. If there is a local Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) group in your area, that group can connect your congregation with a union member or labor leader who can talk about the connection between his or her faith and the struggle for justice in the workplace. Labor Day speakers receive special training and sample reflections to help them develop their presentations. Congregations organize Labor Day services on the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday before Labor Day or special services on Labor Day Monday. (In some cases, congregations organize services, or reflect on worker justice issues, in the week or two after Labor Day.)

If there is not an IWJ group in your area, consider identifying a Labor Day speaker from your congregation or community or discussing workplace justice in the pastor’s homily. If there is an IWJ group but your worship service or congregation tradition does not accommodate outside speakers, you could use these speakers before or after mass or at adult or teen education classes, or your pastor could incorporate a worker justice theme into the worship service. Think creatively about how best to plan a Labor Day service that will provide support to those struggling for justice on the job and lift up everyone’s spirits in the process. IWJ provides a variety of worship resources that will help you plan a successful Labor Day weekend service.

If you are interested in organizing Labor in the Pulpits/on the Bimah/in the Minbar at your congregation, please sign up here so we can count you as one of the hundreds of congregations around the country lifting up worker justice issues over Labor Day weekend. Getting an accurate count will enable IWJ to publicize the faith community’s concern with worker justice in the national media, which will help bring worker justice issues to an even wider audience. Congregations and religion-labor groups organizing Labor in the Pulpits will receive a sample press release before Labor Day with the number of congregations planning to participate for use in publicizing the program locally.

Labor in the Pulpits/on the Bimah/in the Minbar is a joint project of Interfaith Worker Justice and the AFL-CIO.

If you have any questions or would like to brainstorm ideas for a Labor Day service, contact Renaye Manley ( at Interfaith Worker Justice, 773-728-8400 x15. You will find resources online.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

4th of July thoughts about peace

Someone on the Mennonite peace list forwarded this excerpt from a monologue on an NPR radio show.

It aired on the afternoon of the 4th. Original airing was on Memorial Day in 2005. The title of the monologue is "Ode to War and Peace", by Joe Frank.

"There are no medals to peace, no honors, no marching bands, no great monuments to peace, no hymns sung, no great odes, no martial melodies, no parades to peace.

"There are no gigantic fireworks displays, no champagne corks popped to peace, no last cigarette smoked in its honor. There is no night before peace, no declaration of peace. The very absurdity of a nation declaring peace on another shocks the imagination.

"And who among us can say that he has heard of the spoils of peace? Is there such a thing as a peace hero? Who among us have gathered with his old cronies late at night, hoisted a glass and told peace stories? What valiant young man has been welcomed back from peace?

"What young boy has gazed longingly at his father, saying that he would willingly go to peace to save his country?"

Joe Frank has a dark sense of humor, so this excerpt is the close of a satirical piece extolling war, in the vein of Mark Twain's famous story (and prayer), The War Prayer. The lines immediately preceding "There are no medals to peace" are:

"What is peace but an excuse, a reason for cowardice, a refusal to accept one's responsibilities? I spit on peace. I lift my leg on peace. I have my dog despoil the miserable garden of peace."

You can read the whole thing at

If you've never read the Mark Twain story, it's just 14 paragraphs long and well worth the short time to read it and the perhaps longer time to 'inwardly digest'. It wasn't published until late 1916, 6 years after he died. His family worried that it would be considered sacrilegious, his publisher felt queasy about it, and he confessed to having suppressed it out of fear. It was published in Harper's in late 1916, while the USA was still officially neutral in WW1. Five or six months later, it would again have been considered unfit for publication. Too "unpatriotic".

Friday, April 18, 2008

Global food crisis quotes -- read 'em and weep

These were gleaned from one NY Times article today. They deserve to be seen and reflected upon without the distractions of the reporters' text . Here's a global phenomenon, a catastrophe in the making, and it exists outside the range of our political discourse. No candidate makes the connection that here's a common cause for all humanity, located where climate change, tight oil supplies, water shortages, and food shortages intersect and interact. Talk about a Moral Equivalent to War. What a replacement for the Global War on Terror. What an opportunity to approach our "enemies" in peace.

If we only had "the will and vision". The problem is that many people do -- it's the institutional dominance of money and its will to power that keeps humans' political will and vision limited to a narrow range of "realistic" options.

I read these quoted words and think of all the Biblical texts about widows and orphans, the feeding of the multitudes, and what are treated, in effect and ineffectually, as just the platitudes of the Beatitudes. Read 'em and weep:

Haitian consumer of mud-cooking oil-and-sugar patties sold at street stalls: “It’s salty and it has butter and you don’t know you’re eating dirt. It makes your stomach quiet down.”

Haitian father, talking about his children who hadn't eaten the day before: "They look at me and say, 'Papa, I'm hungry' and I have to look away. It's humiliating and it makes you angry."

Haitian 29-year-old mother of five: "Take one. You pick. Just feed them."

Haitian political activist on rioting in Port-au-Prince: “Why were we surprised? When something is coming your way all the way from Burkina Faso you should see it coming. What we had was like a can of gasoline that the government left for someone to light a match to it.”

25-year-old Egyptian tomato vendor: “We can’t even find food. May God take the guy I have in mind” (said with hands raised toward the sky, referring to President Mubarak).

Egyptian pensioner: “If all the people rise, then the government will resolve this. But everyone has to rise together. People get scared. But we will all have to rise together.”

Indonesian agricultural advisor: "The biggest concern is food riots. It has happened in the past and can happen again.”

World Food Program analyst, talking about riots in Senegal: "Why are these riots happening? The human instinct is to survive, and people are going to do no matter what to survive. And if you’re hungry you get angry quicker.”

Activist in Niger, who had helped organized protests in 2005: "As a result of that experience the government created a cabinet-level ministry to deal with the high cost of living. So when prices went up this year the government acted quickly to remove tariffs on rice, which everyone eats. That quick action has kept people from taking to the streets.”

El Salvador's President Elias Antonio Saca: “This is a perfect storm. How long can we withstand the situation? We have to feed our people, and commodities are becoming scarce. This scandalous storm might become a hurricane that could upset not only our economies but also the stability of our countries."

US economist/UN adviser Jeffrey Sachs: "It's the worst crisis of its kind in more than 30 years. It’s a big deal and it’s obviously threatening a lot of governments. There are a number of governments on the ropes, and I think there’s more political fallout to come.”

Source: New York Times, "Across Globe, Empty Bellies Bring Rising Anger": April 18, 2008

Friday, April 04, 2008

Two Speeches

This has been a day for reading and thinking about two speeches given a year apart, 40 and 41 years ago.

On this day in 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the Riverside Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The title was "Beyond Vietnam: a time to break silence".

The storm of criticism that followed was prefigured by this passage early in the speech: "Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: "Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?" "Why are you joining the voices of dissent?" "Peace and civil rights don't mix," they say. "Aren't you hurting the cause of your people," they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live."

A little later in the speech came a phrase that was a particular target of criticism: "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government." Time Magazine called the speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi". The Washington Post said that he had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."

The critics generally ripped that accurate and inconvenient phrase about our government's violence out of its social and spiritual context. This is the paragraph in which it appeared:

"My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years -- especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent."

Read on and compare his description of the violence being done against the Vietnamese land and people with what has been in Iraq. Think about the reaction if he spoke today, particularly if he were the pastor of a presidential candidate.

Exactly one year after delivering that speech, he was shot dead. The killer probably wasn't thinking of the symbolism of his timing. Still, that speech, that anniversary, and that death feel spiritually linked.

The second speech, given the night before the assassination, is noted for its foreshadowing of his death: "I've been to the mountain top".

Read 'em and weep, as is said in another context. Would that we will all be able to say something, religious or not, in the elevated spirit of  what MLK Jr. said that last night as he finished his last speech:

"And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

"And I don't mind.

"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

"And so I'm happy, tonight.

"I'm not worried about anything.

"I'm not fearing any man!

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!"

And those were his last public words.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

God and Wealth

I'm a member over at a site called CrossLeft and I blog and comment there. CrossLeft's masthead slogan is "Join the Progressive Christian Movement". The question of the meaning of terms like "progressive", "liberal", and "left" comes up from time to time, particularly in relation to the presidential election campaign.

I had written a comment complaining that Obama and Clinton are too caught up in the corporate system, and received a reply from an Obama supporter that one can take anti-corporatism too far. Following that, someone else posted a drawing of his to illustrate the passage in Luke that ends with Jesus saying "You cannot serve God and wealth" -- or in the older translations, "You cannot serve God and Mammon".

So this is what I wrote next, with a few emendations at the end, coming from my comments to responders:

Angelo's illustration for Luke 16:1-13 stimulates me to write about corporations, conservatism, and Jesus' teachings. Yeah, again with the corporations.

It really seems so simple and straightforward to me.

1. In Luke, Jesus says "You cannot worship God and wealth."

2. Business corporations whose stocks are publicly traded in the market have, under current law, only one duty -- a fiduciary duty to their stockholders. That means they're obligated to put stockholders' financial interests above all else. Net income and net worth are their only bottom lines. The production of wealth is the sole interest of these fictive legal persons.

3. As a legal person, a corporation of this type is literally a soulless person and feels unconstrained by any human values other than "wealth is good", "more wealth is better", and "no amount of wealth is enough". Thus, maximizing profits is at all times its only operational goal. Providing products and services are but means to this goal.

4. This strange wealth-seeking person is given perpetual life by its charter. It nevertheless may die, but if it makes profits, it need not ever die. With perpetual life comes the absence of 'death taxes'. The 'estate' is never broken up and redistributed to its human heirs; its wealth can build to a level far beyond that which is possessed by a single human person. The most successful corporate persons become economic entities that are larger than most nation-states. With size comes financial power. With financial power comes political power.

5. The human persons who own stock in this fictive legal person are free from any legal responsibilities for what their corporation does. If they don't like what the corporation is doing, they can sell their stock. If they continue to hold their stock, they have no practical influence on "their" corporation's behavior. The structure of corporate governance makes it extremely hard for stockholders to have any significant impact on corporate policy and behavior.

6. Except as restricted by governmental regulation, the corporate personages are therefore set free to do as they like. The cumulative effects of what they like to do have, over the last couple of centuries, changed the face of the earth and changed the terms of human existence . Thus, the true revolutionary force in 'modern times' has been the corporation, aided by corporate-enabling and corporate-promoting nation-states. The Soviet Union's counterrevolution couldn't hold up against the corporate-based system' ability to harness science and technology to produce wealth and power. And China's has been absorbed by the same system within which it is now a major contender for power.

7. Wealth and power, relatively concentrated in key sectors, have made the corporation the dominant and defining institution in our society. People adapt to its needs more than it adapts to people's needs.

8. Our society has in this manner created a class of fictive legal individuals who constitute a totally new type of ruling class. These rulers are beyond the reach of the teachings of Jesus. "Serving Mammon" (I like the old words sometimes), they are unable to "serve God". Or, correlatively, "to serve humanity". Is it any wonder we non-fictive human individuals and our human societies have problems?

9. Those who serve these servants of Mammon as executives and highest-level support staff have generally taken for themselves the respectable term "conservative". They function as the human part of the new ruling class. (It's estimated that perhaps only 30,000 people constitute the "ruling class" part of the "upper class".) Their definition of "conservative", stripped of parochial social and cultural issues (the materials of "the culture wars" in the USA), comes down to maintaining the status quo of corporate domination.

10. Our constitutional structure and the structure of our election laws make for a two party system which is hard to challenge or change. Both parties are conservative in that they work to maintain the corporate system. One party tends to work to enhance corporate power, the other to improve the terms of the deal through incremental changes and reforms which help to stabilize the corporate system. FDR is the prime example of the latter, despite the fact that his reforms weren't experienced as merely incremental by the diehards of the corporate enhancement bloc. He took the label of "liberal" rather than "progressive", as "progressive" had become an outmoded and pejorative term. It was associated with basic challenges to the corporate system which had failed and which no longer had any traction.

11. The term "liberal', having been demonized and made into a pejorative by the Republican corporate party, was in turn rejected by many reformers within the Democratic corporate party, as well as by outsiders to the "left" of that party. "Progressive" became the term of choice for many. It had the virtue -- and the vice -- of blurring distinctions between the incrementalist reformers within the Democratic Party and the "leftist" system-challengers outside of the party. The virtue is that it has made it easier to form some coalitions across ideological lines in order to resist, in mostly ineffectual ways, some of the most extreme actions of the Republican Party. The vice is that it blurs ideological differences in a way that confuses thought and diffuses action. It makes it harder to discern what changes improve and support the corporate system, and what changes actually start to change the system.

12. Jesus said "You cannot worship God and wealth."

What do we mean when we call this place "CrossLeft" and ask people to "Join the Progressive Christian Movement"? Do we see connections between the words "You cannot serve God and wealth" and our American institutional life? Are we to abet those corporate persons and their servants who worship wealth? If we oppose them, how? And how do we discern the difference?

That is, do we take corporatism on as a major opponent? If we do, as I think we must, then what constitutes real opposition and what doesn't?

Those are the questions that will do much to define what we mean by "CrossLeft" and "Progressive Christian Movement". The tags "leftist", "liberal", and "progressive" are far less important than the issue of where you draw the boundary between "conservative" and "non-conservative" -- or more precisely, "corporatist" and "non-corporatist", as some paleoconservatives and Burkean conservatives see the dangers of corporatism.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Going Hungry to Make a Point

This article describes the Labor-Religion Coalition's Fast in March of 2000. The issue for that year's fast was the minimum wage which had been unchanged for many years at $5.15 per hour. It took a lot of organizing and lobbying work, and it took a few years, but with the efforts of unions, religious groups, and community organizations, the increase was won in 2004, and the wage was finally raised in 2005, to $6.00 per hour. In 2006, it went to $6.75 and then to $7.15 on January 1, 2007.

By comparison, the Federal minimum wage was raised last year to $5.85 and is scheduled to go to $6.55 in July and to $7.25 in July, 2009.

The effects in NY have been good -- the increase benefited thousands of low-wage New York workers. And, contrary to the warnings of opponents of the minimum wage hike, employment in industries employing large numbers of low-wage workers grew significantly. And hours worked increased, too.

Currently in NY, business organizations like the National Federation of Independent Businesses are again fighting a bill to raise the rates again and to index them to inflation:

"This year, a bill has passed out of the Assembly's labor committee to raise the wage in 2009, 2010 and 2011. The proposed legislation also mandates annual minimum wage increases starting in 2012, indexing the raises to a formula combining inflation rates and the consumer price index. Two-thirds of NFIB survey respondents opposed that idea. Under the bill, the minimum wage would rise to $7.75 in 2009, $8 in 2010 and $8.25 in 2011." []

The NFIB is also fighting a bill to mandate paid family leaves, which passed the State Assembly (controlled by Democrats) and is stalled in the State Senate (controlled by Republicans).

The struggle for equity and living wages continues -- the new minimum wages are still below Living Wage standards for NY. Religious groups will continue to share an economic justice agenda with labor.

From the New York Times, March 31, 2000, Friday,

Going Hungry to Make a Point;
A Fast for Poor Laborers Is a Sign of New Interest in an Old Technique

On college campuses and farmers' fields, in churches and immigration detention centers, and across a range of religious and political beliefs, people are fasting. They do it to make a statement, to prove a point, to draw attention, to make a personal kind of peace.

Indeed, across New York State this week, more than a thousand people, from the Roman Catholic bishop of Albany to janitors in Buffalo, have joined one of the country's largest fasts, this one to protest low wages and abuses in the workplace.

Fasting, of course, has been a spiritual undertaking and sociopolitical tool for centuries, and the lineup of famous fasters is vast and varied: Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Dick Gregory and, of course, Jesus of Nazareth. But fasting, it appears, is seeing a modest revival.

''There's been a definite increase in fasting,'' said Kim Bobo, executive director of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. ''Fasting has always been in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim tradition, and as people of faith seek increasingly to struggle for justice in this time of abundance, it's a natural outgrowth that fasting would be something they do.''

To many, the power of fasting, personal and political, feels especially strong in New York, where many of the streets, beginning with Wall Street and extending deep into the suburbs, seem to be awash in money and an obsession with wealth and excess.

Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany said New York's religious and labor leaders came up with the idea of a 40-hour fast because they were upset that the problems of poor workers were drawing so little attention, while high-tech billionaires were getting all the publicity. Fasting, he said, is a way to make an unmistakable moral statement when so much of the populace is preoccupied with stock options and sybaritic consumerism. And what better time to do it, he said, than during the Christian penitential season of Lent?

''Everybody is mesmerized these days by the soaring stock market and how people seem to be doing so well economically, yet the gap between the richest and the poorest is wider than it's been in decades,'' said Bishop Hubbard, co-chairman of the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition, which organized the fast. ''Very often those not participating cannot speak for themselves, and we feel as religious leaders and members of the labor movement that we have to be a voice for the voiceless.''

In Albany, Brockport, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and New York City, hundreds of clergy members, labor leaders, college students and others began fasting at 8 p.m. Wednesday. Subsisting on only water and juice, they have prayed together and joined street demonstrations to draw attention to a group they call ''invisible workers.''

These workers include janitors in Buffalo who earn $5.25 an hour, farm workers in Sullivan County who are required to work 70 hours a week and cafeteria workers at the State University of New York in Albany who cannot afford medical coverage. These workers, the fasters say, often do not earn enough to feed their families adequately.

Hallie Williams of Buffalo, who worked for 18 years as a unionized building cleaner before she was laid off and replaced by a nonunion janitor earning the minimum wage, applauded the fast. ''We can't do anything if somebody don't help us because if somebody don't help us, we're just out there without a paddle,'' she said.

The New Yorkers are fasting during the same week that six students at Purdue University in Indiana are doing so to pressure the university's administration to do more to ensure that clothing bearing the Purdue name is not made in sweatshops.

Last spring, six students at the University of California at Berkeley fasted for eight days to demand more instructors for the ethnic studies department. In 1998, half a dozen tomato pickers in Immokalee, Fla., fasted for a month to protest low wages, while janitors and labor leaders at the University of Southern California shunned food to protest the university's failure to sign a union contract.

Fouad Jabar, a graduate student at Purdue who began fasting on Monday, said, ''At other schools, there have been sit-ins and protest demonstrations, but instead of being confrontational, we chose to do a fast to show how serious we are about the sweatshop problem.''

The Rev. Kevin Irwin, a professor of theology at the Catholic University of America who has written extensively on fasting, said the recent upsurge is a healthy development, healthier than a trendier type of fasting that he has little patience for.

''The recent trend in fasting in our society was rather narcissistic -- we fast to lose weight, we fast to look good,'' Father Irwin said. ''The purpose of the fasting we're seeing now regarding social concerns is healthier. It is dependent on God and raises very important values in society.''

Those who choose to fast have many role models. In the Bible, the prophet Isaiah fasted to loose the bonds of wickedness and to undo the yoke of the oppressed, and Jesus fasted for 40 days to proclaim good news to the poor and to give sight to the blind and health to the sick.

Gandhi fasted to draw attention to Britain's colonial domination and harsh treatment of the Indian people. Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers, held repeated fasts of three weeks or more to make the public focus on the low wages and miserable conditions of thousands of farm workers.

''It's a commonly accepted practice: one afflicts one's own body as a sign of identifying with the pain of another,'' said Balfour Brickner, rabbi emeritus at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan. ''The fast in New York is appropriate because these people, these workers, are hungry. They're hungering for economic and social justice, and our fast is a manifestation of our identity with their cause.''

Brian O'Shaughnessy, statewide coordinator of New York's labor-religion coalition, acknowledged that it was hard to count how many people were participating in the fast. But he said close to 1,500 people had told the coalition that they would participate.

The coalition chose to make the fast 40 hours because 40 is freighted with symbolism: the 40 days of Lent, the 40 days of rain in the Great Flood, the Jews' 40 years in the desert, and the 40-hour workweek.

This is the fifth year the coalition has held the fast. Last year, after the participants focused on the plight of farm workers, the State Legislature raised the minimum wage for farm workers. This year the fast began two days after the New York State Catholic Conference held its annual lobbying day in Albany, and it will end at noon today.

''Fasts like this highlight problems and highlight the need for us to continue to address the inequities in many provisions of the labor law,'' said Nicholas Spano, a Westchester County Republican who is chairman of the State Senate Labor Committee. ''We are listening, we are responding, and we have to do more.''

The participants say they want to press the Legislature to raise the state minimum wage above the federal minimum of $5.15.

Bishop Hubbard said he hoped the fast would grow in future years, and some labor and religious leaders say they will try to spread it to other states. The fasters, Bishop Hubbard said, were following in the footsteps of Jesus, who, the Bible said, fasted to prepare for his public ministry to help the needy.

''I think we have the same mission in today's society,'' he said. ''The issues may be different, but the call to reach out to those who are neediest and most vulnerable among us is every bit as much a part of our religious mandate as it was when Christ walked the face of the earth.''

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Immigration: A 40-Hour Fast For a Moral Solution

For the last 12 years, The Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State has organized a 40-hour Interfaith Fast during the Christian season of Lent, to highlight issues of social and economic injustice and to move people to prayer, reflection, and responsive action. We fast because we hunger for justice and righteousness.

This year's 13th Annual 40-Hour Fast focuses on Immigrants. It will start at 8 PM on Tuesday, March 4 and end at noon on Thursday, March 6.

What we do in NY can be duplicated elsewhere. Please read, and then think about what you can do where you are. Downloadable brochures and other information are at


"You must not oppress the stranger...
for you lived as strangers in the land of Egypt."
Exodus 23:9


During our fast, what can we do?


Pray daily that immigrants are welcomed in our communities as sisters and brothers and that all workers receive fair wages and are treated with dignity.

If you know of any worker not being paid overtime or the NYS minimum wage, contact the NYS Department of Labor at 1-800-447-3992. New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status, must earn at least of $7.15 per hour (including tips).

Contact the Fiscal Policy Institute (518/ 786-3156) to receive a copy of Working For a Better Life: A Profile of Immigrants in the New York State Economy or download a copy at

Learn about the rights of workers to overtime wages, prevailing wage rates for certain public building projects and other programs and services available to all without regard to immigration status. For information or to schedule a presentation, contact the Bureau of Immigrant Workers’ Rights in the New York State Department of Labor at 518/ 457-6162 (upstate) or 212/ 775-3665 (downstate).

Visit to learn what some religious congregations are doing to make immigrant families visible as children of God in the face of raids and deportations.

Attend (or help to plan) a community forum or roundtable discussion on immigration. Contact a Labor-Religion Coalition to connect with planning in your region.

Support statewide policies that give farmworkers and domestic workers the rights and protections from which they are now excluded.

Read the Unity Blueprint for Immigration Reform, available (along with other resources) at It provides specific legislative proposals aimed at achieving a workable, just and fair immigration system.


An overhaul of U S. trade policies such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), which have led to the impoverishment of working people in Mexico and other countries. These policies have created a desperate need to leave one’s country and migrate to the U.S. in search of survival wages.

Adequate funding and enforcement of all U.S. labor laws, including wage and hour laws, health and safety laws and protection of workers’ right to freely join a union. Addressing these issues for U.S.-born workers is part of what it means to create a welcoming climate for immigrants.

A program that values families and favors the unification of family members.

A pathway to earned citizenship, building on the values we all share. Exploitation, punishment and mass deportation of immigrants isn’t right or workable.

(Based on the Summary and Users Guide to For You Were Once a Stranger: Immigration in the U.S. Through the Lens of Faith (2007). Download at Interfaith Worker Justice,

--WHY 40 HOURS?--

The number 40 has special significance in both religious and labor traditions.

The Hebrew scriptures speak of the 40 years in the wilderness and the 40 days of rain that preceded a new covenant with Noah, both transformative events.

For Christians, the 40 days of Lent are a time of sacrifice, prayer and action rooted in Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert.

The labor movement, after many years of sacrifice and struggle, gained a 40 hour work-week for most workers in the US.


"Fasting is a transforming act--it has the moral power to bring about political change worthy of our state…"
Bishop Howard Hubbard, Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany

"…workers in New York are hungering for economic and social justice, and our fasting is a manifestation of our identity with their cause." Rabbi Balfour Brickner

"Muslims fast from daybreak until dusk during the entire month of Ramadan. Denial of sustenance is one way Muslims share a connection to those who suffer from hunger and poverty."
Imam Djafer Sebkhaoui

"Way back in the beginning of our union, someone asked what we expected from the church. I answered that …we wanted the Church to be present with us, willing to sacrifice for justice."
Cesar Chavez

"This, rather is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke, setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke." Isaiah 58:6


During these 40 hours you are invited to go without solid food for one or more meals, or for the time between sunrise and sunset on March 5, or for the entire 40 hours, or for the time between meals.

How to fast
The Labor-Religion Fast asks you to not eat solid food during the 40 hours or during a period you identify. It is important to drink plenty of liquids while fasting. In your hunger, you are asked to take action, "to hunger for justice" so that on-going and persistent injustice in New York State may be alleviated.

It is hoped you will invite others (family members, co-workers, your religious congregation, your union brothers and sisters, etc.) to join the Fast. Call 518/ 213-6000, ext. 6294 for more brochures.

Fasters need not change their normal schedule; however, you are encouraged to join with others in your local area for an opening of the Fast on the evening of March 5. Many groups will also "break the fast" together with a simple noon meal and prayer service following the 40th hour on March 7.

You are invited to join others in 2007 FAST events. Click here for details.

Medical Advice for Fasting
(adapted from Women Against War, sponsor of a 24 hour fast)
Most healthy adults can safely fast for 24 hours. However, some people should not participate such as those with diabetes, liver or kidney disease, persons on chronic steroids, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

It is common to feel some uncomfortable sensations during a period of fasting. These include headache, fatigue, some nausea later in the fast, lightheadedness or dizziness especially with standing up. Regular coffee or tea drinkers are more likely to experience withdrawal headaches or migraines triggered by fasting.

Preparations for fasting:
•In the first 12-16 hours of fasting most of our readily available calorie sources are consumed.
•It probably helps to eat a carbohydrate rich meal before beginning the fast. Carbohydrate rich foods include cereals, breads, pasta, grains, rice, legumes.
•Coffee and tea drinkers may try to reduce their consumption several days before their fast.
•Once the fast begins, it is important to conserve energy. Plan to rest and nap throughout the time.
•It helps to have warm clothing to help maintain body temperature.
•It is important to continue to drink plenty of water.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Words and Deeds: Modeling Good Behavior

I've long felt that Christians should talk less and do more. This interminable political season makes me feel more strongly about that, both as regarding Christians and politicians. People like to talk about "values" and then too often act like slobs, demonizing their opponents and behaving in ways that betray their professed ideals.

I came across an anecdote this week that illustrates the problem. It's told as a jab at a certain way of being Christian but it's equally applicable to all sorts of people who proclaim noble sentiments and then act badly. With a few changes of slogans and bumper stickers, you could rewrite it to mock frustrated "peace and love" liberals or other ill-tempered but high-minded targets. I'll pass it on in the form in which I received it, though, as I continue to think that, in the world of religion, "evangelism of the deed" is more needed at this time than "evangelism of the word". We need more Good Samaritans and fewer pious preachers.

Here's the story. I think it speaks for itself:

An honest man was being tailgated by a stressed out woman on a busy boulevard. Suddenly, the light turned yellow, just in front of him. He did the right thing, stopping at the crosswalk, even though he could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection.

The tailgating woman hit the roof, and the horn, screaming in frustration as she missed her chance to get through the intersection, dropping her cell phone and makeup. As she was still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the face of a very serious police officer. The officer ordered her to exit her car with her hands up.

He took her to the police station where she was searched, finger printed, photographed, and placed in a holding cell. After a couple of hours, a policeman approached the cell and opened the door. She was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with her personal effects.

He said, "I’m very sorry for this mistake. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping off the guy in front of you, and cussing a blue streak at him. I noticed the 'Choose Life' license plate holder, the 'What Would Jesus Do' bumper sticker, the 'Follow Me to Sunday School' bumper sticker, and the chrome-plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk. Naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car."

--Credit for this story: Rev. Mike Burr, Koinonia Community, Grand Junction CO. He says "in all likelihood, it was borrowed...feel free to use it." It was on the "Pastor's Page" in an essay entitled "Is it Christian? Matthew 7: 21-23"

The passage from Matthew is a good warning to those of us who are proud and overly confident in our righteousness, whatever our brand of Being Right might be, religious or secular.

Matthew has Jesus saying: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’"

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Religion in Politics: Who's a Christian?

On the Christian right, it's common to question or reject the True Christianity of "liberals" and members of other suspect sects or "cults". In this interminable presidential campaign, the candidacy of Willard Mitt Romney has made the issue of "I'm a Christian and You're Not" an important, though carefully and slyly handled, one.

A couple of weeks ago, Mike Hucklebee blandly, with seeming naivete, inserted a Mormon doctrinal issue into an interview with a New York Times reporter. It's reasonable to assume that it was a calculated dig intended to raise the hackles of the Faithful Christian against Strange Unchristian Mormon Beliefs. Similarly, it's reasonable to assume the bookcase cross-effect in a Huckabee tv ad was a consciously crafted effect, suitable for a candidate whose fliers describe him as a "Christian Leader", differentiating himself particularly from the Mormon Romney, as well as from other less than evangelical Republican candidates.

So I've been reading up on Mormonism lately. Long ago, I lived in Salt Lake City for three years and got to know a bit of the basics. I've occasionally read some more about it (out of anthropological and comparative religion interests) and now, with Romney's candidacy, I've been taking another look. With Christianity so much in the public square, the question of who is and who isn't a Christian has taken on heightened political importance.

The arguments are always based on doctrinal differences. But since there are so many differences within Christianity, with doctrines changing throughout its history and with many doctrinal divides of greater or lesser importance existing today, it's difficult for an ordinary person to decide what doctrines should be considered out of bounds and what doctrines are genuinely normative for all who want to be recognized as Christian.

Looking at the problem in purely ideological terms, you see incompatible definitions. How to choose among them?

My suggestion is to chuck all the doctrinal discussions and look at physical behavior, not verbal behavior. The simplest first cut is to look at what books are being used in rituals and in training ritual leaders. We can call them "scriptures". What they contain isn't important to this analysis. It's just necessary to be able to identify the labels on the books.

Using this approach, at the elementary level it's clear that Judaism and Christianity are different religions because they use different scriptures. The Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, is incorporated into Christian practice, but another book, the New Testament, is added. New scripture, new religion.

Islam, while acknowledging and giving some respect to the Jewish and Christian scriptures, has the Qur'an. New scripture, definitely a new religion.

Consider, then, Christian Science -- with Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures being a necessary adjunct to the Christian scriptures. Christian Science ritual focuses on a Bible Lesson, composed of citations from both the Bible and Science and Health. Without the new book, there's no Christian Science practice and no Sunday and Wednesday ritual gatherings. Therefore, although Christian Science is an offshoot of Christianity, it's not Christianity.

With three new scriptures added to the Christian Bible, the Mormons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), make the decision easy. The Book of Mormon, Doctrines and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price define a new religion, not just a new wrinkle within an old religion.

So, without doctrinal considerations or theological bias of any kind, it's possible to come to a completely objective classification of the LDS as a separate religion distinct from Christianity.

This approach saves the time and trouble that would come with having to read a lot of theological arguments. Of course, one can always go further into it and define a variety of Judaisms, Christianities, Islams, and Mormonisms by looking at the use of other books (like the Talmud in Judaism) and by observing other behaviors. In Christianity, for example, it's informative to see who can take communion with whom.

Considerations of doctrines can then follow later, if one is so inclined. What I find helpful is to be able to make objective distinctions first, without having to ponder imponderables or dealing with charges of heresy or apostasy. Discussions of variant theological ideas, like Huckabee's idea of the Trinity vs. Romney's, can then be descriptive and comparative, without requiring the reader to adopt any particular doctrinal or judgmental stance. Establishing a "value-free" definition of differences might enable people to look at these things more calmly and rationally. (But I don't count on it.)

At the very least, though, it allows people to cut to the chase more quickly -- and, if they're going to discuss religion in politics, have their discussions focus on the impact, if any, of candidates' religious doctrines on policy.

Friday, December 14, 2007

A Helpful Hint from Huckabee

I disagree with most of Mike Huckabee's positions. Still, I find a couple of things about him that I do like.

Big money Republicans are bothered by his candidacy's recent surge. They don't like his moderating touch of economic populism. His concern for the poor does make Huckabee much more of a "compassionate conservative" than most of his colleagues. In his campaign, he criticizes corporate policies, Wall Street, and the damage done to workers by US trade policies. He's even won a union endorsement, from the Machinists.

His platform, however, as displayed at his website, doesn't go into these matters. It's much more conventionally and conservatively "faith-based" as defined by right-wing evangelicals, and more reticent on compassion.

Despite this, his economic populism is a plus factor. And he has an enlightened attitude toward the arts: he supports more arts funding in public education and made music and art education mandatory in Arkansas for every K-12 student. The arts are often the first to be cut either as an unaffordable "frill" or as taking time away for "more important" academic work. Huckabee, an amateur musician, knows they are integral to mental development.

What's more interesting to me is the deft way he deflected a question on Biblical inerrancy. It could be a model for the way Christian Progressives deal with the inerrancy issue. When a young man held up a Bible and asked "Do you believe every word of this book?" this is what Huckabee said when his turn came:

"Sure. I believe the Bible is exactly what it is. It's the word of revelation to us from God himself. (Applause)

"And the fact is that when people ask do we believe all of it, you either believe it or you don't believe it. But in the greater sense, I think what the question tried to make us feel like was that, well, if you believe the part that says "Go and pluck out your eye," well, none of us believe that we ought to go pluck out our eye. That obviously is allegorical.

"But the Bible has some messages that nobody really can confuse and really not left up to interpretation. "Love your neighbor as yourself."

"And as much as you've done it to the least of these brethren, you've done it unto me. Until we get those simple, real easy things right, I'm not sure we ought to spend a whole lot of time fighting over the other parts that are a little bit complicated.

"And as the only person here on the stage with a theology degree, there are parts of it I don't fully comprehend and understand, because the Bible is a revelation of an infinite god, and no finite person is ever going to fully understand it. If they do, their god is too small."

The two things that I see as significant here is that first he both asserts inerrancy and recognizes that what he believes to be inerrant meanings are beyond complete understanding. Then he sets out what I think is the important idea that's shared by both theologically conservative and theologically liberal Progressive Christians: "love your neighbor as yourself" and "as you do unto others, you do unto Jesus." That's a powerful notion, regardless of how metaphorically or literally anyone takes the "doing unto Jesus" part.

What Progressive Christians need to be reminding each other, as well as reminding the Unprogressives, is "Until we get those simple, real easy things right, I'm not sure we ought to spend a whole lot of time fighting over the other parts that are a little bit complicated."

Programmatically, those simple things aren't that easy. But the words themselves don't need interpretation. Progressive Christians of whatever stripe will spend their time better in thinking together about how to be faithful with those words than in fighting over the other parts.

Although I will oppose Huckabee if he's the nominee, I thank him for a helpful hint. I expect to find myself reminding Progressive and Unprogressive Christians of the need to do the simple things first.

Thanks, Mike.