Sunday, July 20, 2014
As many of you know over the past few years I have taken up cycling as a primary form of exercise. This coming September 20 I will do two things I have yet to do in my short cycling “career.” First, I will join hundreds of other cyclers in the Bike to the Bay Ride 75 miles from Dover, Delaware to Dewey Beach Delaware, and second I will be biking to raise money for Multiple Sclerosis (MS). While the first makes it a challenge, the second makes it a worthwhile challenge.
For this reason, I writing to ask you to support me in the effort to raise a minimum of $300 for research on this crippling disease, and services to those who suffer with it. Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling, disease of the central nervous system that interrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body. Millions of people are affected by MS and the challenges of living with its unpredictable symptoms, which range from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis.
You may donate in support of my efforts by going to my personal MS fundraising page at this link, or by sending a check to “National Multiple Sclerosis society” at 2205 Windsor Circle, Broomall, PA.
I thank you in advance for your support, and for making this ride truly meaningful.
Monday, July 14, 2014
Down the street from me live three children I would guess who are all under the age of 10. Often they ride up and down the sidewalk on their bikes and scooters. Whenever I walk by their house with my dog and they are out playing, they run over to pet the dog. They brighten my day because they remind me of what childhood should be, and yet isn’t for so many young people.
I have been thinking a lot lately about children and their struggle to survive. I am thinking of …
- The thousands of Central American children who have traveled across Mexico to reunite with their families only to find an un-welcome at the Mexico-Texas border.
- The three Israeli seminarians who were kidnapped and murdered and the Palestinians youth who were attacked by an mob of angry Israeli youth, all whose deaths have ignited yet another barrage of violence in Israel-Palestine which has killed more Israelis and over 100 Palestinians many of them children.
- The thousands of Philadelphia students whose upcoming school year hangs in the balance because politicians are unwilling to fulfill their constitutional duties to provide a “thorough and efficient” public school system for Pennsylvania students for fear of taxing their cronies in the gas and oil industries.
- The four little children and their families who were killed, and others displaced, by a fire on Juye 5 that burned eight dilapidated homes in Southwest Philadelphia
- Sherita Hamilton, whose name sits over my desk, a 19 year old girl shot to death in Philadelphia in October 2012 and who reminds of the daily carnage of youth maimed and murdered every day in this country.
Our American culture is often characterized as worshiping youth, but as I think about these young people and others like them, it occurs to me that we may worship youth in the abstract, but when it comes to real kids whose lives are threatened, we who have the means and the power to make a difference often treat them as expendable, whether its sending them off to war, or cutting back on funding for their schools, or refusing to take measures to reduce the prevalence of guns in their communities or sending them back at the border to a certain life of violence and poverty. The young suffer because of the intransigence, the arrogance and the greed of the old, and that concerns and saddens me.
In all these cases mentioned above the children are caught up in larger social, political and economic forces over which they have no control and in some cases are not even aware of. The children swarming across the Mexican border are in many cases fleeing gang violence and poverty in their home countries. The children in Israel-Palestine are caught in a land-based conflict that goes back decades if not centuries. The Philadelphia school children's education is being held hostage by politicians more interested in filling their campaign coffers than serving the people they supposedly represent. The children killed in gun violence and in horrible fires like the one in Southwest suffer because those with the power to make their neighborhoods safer fail to do so.
Youth is meant to be a time of freedom and exploration. The other day a colleague sent me a link to “30 Magical Photos of Children Playing Around the World." It reminded me of what youth should be. As you look at these photos, notice that children don’t require much: a space to play in, a box to kick like a soccer ball, and companions to share it with. Why is it so hard for us to help all children to experience this kind of joy-filled freedom?
In Luke 18 he says: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” I have long believed (though the thought is not original or unique to me) that a society is best judged by how it treats its most vulnerable. In this case, we are to be judged by how we treat our children. By that measure we are failing miserably.
Then, in Matthew 11 he says: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. There is something we need to learn from children – about trust, curiosity, openness to others, and the joy of living. If we were less concerned about pursuing our own agendas, and protecting ourselves from the “other” (be it gender, race, culture, nationality, class, etc), we might bonds to build trust with those "others." We need to learn from children, honor them and provide safe haven for them.
I know in my apathy I can be complicit by my indifference and passivity on these issues. I can get so busy with the urgent demands of my life that I can forget what is most important. My world, our world, is not safe for many of the world’s children, and it should be. Obviously, the concern starts with the children in our families, and then to those like the three children on my street with whom we have contact. But it has to go beyond those two circles to the children who suffer, and for whom existence is a life and death struggle. There are obviously no easy answers, but that does not exempt us from working to provider a safer, more hospitable space for children.
Tuesday, July 08, 2014
Three years ago on a sabbatical, I spent some time studying the gun culture. I read a few books by sociologists who had interviewed gun enthusiasts and spent a fair amount of time on the websites of organizations like the NRA and the Gun Owners of America. (One thing I did not do, which I intend to do in the near future, is attend a gun show and talk to folks; I have to admit the prospect is a bit unnerving).
At the same time I have paid attention to the people most outspoken in favor relaxing restrictions on guns, and why they think that is so important. A couple weeks ago I attended a gun violence prevention rally and a small group of pro-gun counter-demonstrators were waving American flags and signs while their long guns were conspicuously strapped over their backs. They looked pathetically ridiculous to me, but they were dead serious, and in the next day’s news they were displayed nearly as prominently as the gun violence prevention advocates; for good or ill they have the media’s attention.
Then I thought about my June 6 posting (“It Starts with the Guns, Stupid!”), which attracted 4-5 pro gun advocates who berated my position that guns should be more fully regulated (expanded background checks, one handgun a month limits, mandated reporting of lost or stolen guns) so as to discourage straw purchasers. I got comments like the following:
- owning a gun is a protected right in America. You don't have to agree...but so long as it is protected, requiring finger printing for that right is not only unconstitutional…”
- - So one gun a month is an acceptable infringement of the 2nd Amendment? Then I guess you also support a one comment a month in order to exercise the 1st Amendment? Or a one time a month application of the 4th Amendment if hassled by the Cops? Or a once a month use of the 5th Amendment?
Despite several attempts to say I wasn't against legal gun ownership, these critics took my comments to mean I covertly wanted to rid all guns from all persons. Statistics and facts about the relationship between the prevalence of guns and gun-related injuries and fatalities were not persuasive. In the end the only things I could get them to agree with was (1) they had a basic mistrust of the government and so opposed any sort of government regulation and (2) they believed that violence is inevitable so they felt a need to arm themselves in self-defense.
Now, I grant you I don’t endorse this way of thinking, but I have come to the conclusion that any effective strategy to reduce the prevalence of guns in our society needs to address the issue at the level of culture. In a recent NY Times Op Ed Brendan Nyhan wrote about “When Facts and Beliefs Collide.” While he was speaking about global warming debate (more specifically why certain climate change detractors aren't convinced by scientific facts), I think his insights apply equally to the issue of guns. He writes “The deeper problem is that citizens participate in public life precisely because they believe the issues at stake relate to their values and ideals…”
When Nyhan speaks of values and ideals, he is talking about what makes human beings unique and about the power of culture. Culture is what gives people a sense of meaning and belonging, who I am and who I belong to. People will go to the mat for their values and ideals. Values and ideals are the origin of some of the world’s greatest good (Think: King’s “I Have a Dream” speech) and most incredible evil (Think: Hitler’s “Final Solution”). People will often allow their reason and common sense to be guided by values and ideals, and they interpret their reality through the lens of those values and ideals. That’s why, as Nyhan points out, people with strong values and ideals are not swayed by facts, logic or reason. They have no need of them because their culture has already given them their truth.
For pro-gun advocates, the Second Amendment is the center of their truth. The right to bear arms is an all-encompassing ideal that shades everything they believe. They believe that if every home had a gun in it, we would all be safer. From who or what I am not sure, since everyone would have the ability to shoot each other, but that is their belief. When I heard young woman who I deeply respect say that to me recently, I nearly fell off my chair. For me a gun in every home is frightening, to her it was safety.
All of which brings me back to culture. Guns and violence are deeply embedded in the American social psyche; in some quarters they are central to what it means to be a man, a husband, a father. Our heroes, our favorite movies, our favorite TV shows, our sports – center around the use of violence to solve problems, and often that violence involves guns. Guns are the ultimate expression of individualism; one can protect his (usually it is a he) loved ones without need of help from others. For many the gun culture is a source of camaraderie, much like old Army buddies gathering for reunions. And let’s not forget, it is a huge business. God, family, patriotism, manhood, freedom – all get wrapped up with the right to bear arms. Values, ideals, beliefs – these are the stuff of culture.
Somehow we must find a way to engage the pro-gun folks on this level – the level of their values, beliefs and ideals. What that looks like and how that is done, I am not sure. However, there was a time when smoking was considerate sophisticated and cool; now it is seen as pathetic and pitiable. Culture changed around tobacco; it can change around guns.
It has too or we will never break the polarization that exists. Simply focusing on facts will not win the day. Political victories in this age of big money seem few and far between. High profiling shootings, not to mention the nightly tragedies in many urban communities have not created a sense of urgency. I am not suggesting we ignore the facts, or stop pursuing political avenues or turn fatalistic toward the daily carnage. However, I am suggesting that unless we can engage American pro-gun culture on the level of ideals, beliefs and values, we will never prevail.
Tuesday, July 01, 2014
Governor Tom Corbett (on left) provided Exhibit A for why the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania needs to pass a full and fair funding formula for public education in Pennsylvania. Earlier this week, state legislators from Philadelphia, plus the mayor, the superintendent and members of the School Reform Commission (SRC) petitioned the legislature to give the city the right to assess a cigarette tax, the revenues of which would provide needed finances for the schools. The governor responded by offering them a deal: vote for a revision in pensions for state workers (something even members of his own Republican party did not support) in exchange for the cigarette tax. by trying to play hard ball politics the governor showed his true hand by pitting pensioners and union members against school children, so he would not have to assess higher taxes on his corporate cronies in the shale gas industry.
Groups such POWER and PCCY have been urging the passage of full, fair funding formula. In its study of how public education funding is decided across the country, the Education Law Center
In those states that do have a formula for education funding, several factors are considered, such as poverty rates, special needs children, the number of ESL students, the number of students in foster care, the number of children with disabilities and the like. Because there is a legally binding formula, decisions are made on the basis of need, not cronyism. However, not only must there be a formula, there must be adequate funding. The state is woefully short in this area too. The governor and the legislature will boast that they have increased education funding, but if one is only paying half the bill, that may keep the bill collectors at bay for a while, but sooner or later the bill becomes due.
The bill for adequate and fair funding for public education is way overdue. The Philadelphia school system is about to collapse with overcrowded understaffed schools with too few auxiliary staff to keep the schools healthy and safe for students and teachers. The cigarette tax will only help Philadelphia reach last year’s level of funding, which itself was woefully inadequate. By trying to play hardball with school funding the governor shows just how closed minded and callous he is. By proposing a budget that does not begin to meet the needs of school districts across the state, the legislature shows just how blind and callous they are to the real needs of the people.
When injustice and callousness becomes so ingrained that people have no conscience about what they are doing, they display what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.” Many a preacher on stewardship Sunday has reminded parishioners that one’s budget and checkbook offer a statement as to the state of one’s soul and the quality of one’s morality. By that standard the governor and the legislature have gone just about as low on the scale as they can go. It is time for Pennsylvania to enact a fully funded formula for public education and give the children of the Commonwealth the quality of education they are guaranteed by the state constitution. The issue is not simply about politics or money; it is about how we will regard and respond to the needs of the most vulnerable in our midst, in this case school children. In that sense a full, fair funding formula is a deeply moral and spiritual issue for political leaders and the communities they are called to serve.
[This blog entry has been sent to Governor Corbett, as well as Sen. Ted Erickson and Rep. William Adolph, my representatives. Rep. Adolph is also head of the House Appropriations Committee which determines the budget. This blog has also been submitted to the Philadelphia Inquirer for consideration on the editorial page]
Sunday, June 29, 2014
As I have read about the growing conflict in Iraq between ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and the Iraqi government, I find myself wondering if there is someone or some group within the Islamic world that can help these two Muslim factions avoid massive casualties and untold suffering on either side. ISIS is primarily led by Sunni Muslims, whereas the president Nouri al-Maliki and the ruling faction in Iraq are primarily made up of Shia Muslims. Meanwhile various governments in the Mideast have lined up on one side or the other: Saudi Arabia, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS are Sunni while the government of Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah (Lebanon) are Shia. While I don’t fully understand the difference between the two groups or the reason for the conflict, there has obviously been a long standing animosity between extreme elements in both groups which has led to the current conflict. As much as we in the West worry about Islamic extremism, the ones who have suffered and died the most are Muslims themselves.
While there are political conservatives like John McCain and Dick Cheney calling for Pres. Obama to insert U.S. troops into the conflict, others like myself have wondered, couldn’t we serve in some mediating role. However, when one looks at the whole situation, it is clear that the United States and most of Europe have lost credibility and therefore the ability and to serve any constructive role in the region. Recently, John Stewart beautifully and succinctly outlined the West’s problem in the region in a segment he called “Middle Eastern Politics: a Love Story.” While some U.S. officials have warmed to the idea of Iran coming to the aid of the Iraqi government, our dependence on oil form Saudi Arabia keeps us from getting too close to Iranians. Meanwhile we are also dependent on Iraqi oil, so how do we respond without alienating our allies/potential allies or are oil-rich business partners?(As an aside this does help make the case for alternative energy sources and lessening our dependence on oil).
Recently in church I found myself praying that someone with credibility with or within the Muslim world might arise and address the problem of this divide. The NY Times reported that a Shiite cleric has called for his fellow Shiites to join the military battle against the Sunni based ISIS. That wasn’t the kind of action I was hoping for. From what I can see from here there is no clear good side or bad side; both have suffered oppression, alienation, violence and endless suffering. To turn on each other as they often do, only heightens all of those things.
Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, returned to India in 1914 to find his country suffering under British rule while also deeply divided between Hindus and Muslims. Through the force of his vision and message, he was able to lead these disparate factions in an effort that eventually led to Indian independence. Even so, he was killed by a Hindu extremists, and the former British colony eventually divided into three countries (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) divided in part by religious belief. However, in his time Gandhi was able to help them see beyond their differences to a common cause.
Likewise, while still in prison Nelson Mandela began brokering a deal with the apartheid government that not only led to his release, but also enabled him to call for the Truth and Reconciliation commission, whose role was to invite perpetrators of violence and atrocities to acknowledge their actions in exchange for pardon. The TRC and Mandela went a long way from preventing South African from spiraling into racial violence. While there are still great disparity between whites and blacks in South Africa, Mandela did leave a framework for bringing justice peacefully.
From my interaction with Muslims in this country I have found them to be peace-loving people who long for the same kinds of things, that I as a Christian long for my community and world. We all want equity, freedom from oppression and the liberty to pursue of life of meaning and purpose. I refuse to be deceived by the media stereotype of Muslims as extremists. I will no more judge the Islamic faith by those who use it as a lever for power, than I would want my Christian faith to be evaluated on the basis of rabid, gun-toting Christian white supremacists. At the heart of the Christian faith is a commitment to justice, reconciliation and peace, and I have found the same sentiments among my Muslim brothers and sisters. While our belief systems differ, our concern for human need and the just ends we seek does not.
The continuing conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Israel-Palestine, Yemen, Iran and elsewhere are deeply troubling and frankly quite scary. Violent conflict never has and never will bring a modicum of peace to the region. So I find myself praying for a Muslim Gandhi, or a Mandela or some group with the will and credibility within the Islamic world, to arise to help bring sanity to an insane conflict and deeply divided part of the world.
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
I have been watching and reading with interest “The Case forReparations” an article written by senior editor of The Atlantic Ta-Nehisi Coates, which first appeared on May 21, 2014. On June 6, Coates’ colleague at The Atlantic, David Frum responded with “The Elusive Specificity of Reparations” and then on June 11 with “The Impossibilityof Reparations.” Coates’ then responded in that same issue with “The Radical Practicality of Reparations.” Since writing the original article Coates has been on numerous progressive radio and talk shows including Moyers and Company, MSNBC, Democracy Now and others (apparently Fox News has not yet called!).
Coates’ original article was quite lengthy, but his essential point, as I understand it, is as follows: African Americans endured 250 years of legal slavery, then 100 years of Jim Crow restrictions and violence, and despite the gains of the Civil Rights Movement and progress for some African Americans in the last 50 years, the vast majority of African-Americans are still suffering the financial, political, cultural and emotional repercussions of 400 years of slavery, terrorism and institutionalized disenfranchisement. Therefore, it is time for the United States to own up to its sins. To make his case, Coates tells the story of Clyde Ross, a black sharecropper from Mississippi who migrated north to Chicago in search of work and a better life, only to find himself swindled by a real estate system consisting of red lining, deceit, and exorbitant fees and interest rates, all endorsed by the social and political authorities of the time. Through a community organizing effort called the Contract Buyer’s Club, Ross and about 130 others were able to legally purchase their homes; another 370 families in the Lawndale section of Chicago were not so fortunate, lost their homes and had to leave the neighborhood. The point of the story was to illustrate the ways in which political, financial, real estate and other institutions intentionally exploited African Americans like Clyde Ross and put nearly insurmountable barriers in front of his desire to pursue a better life like all Americans.
Coates declares it is time to pay up and calls for members of Congress to support HR 40, a bill that has been proposed by Detroit Congressman John Conyers for the last 25 years without ever being given a full hearing. The bill calls for the establishment of a Commission to Study Reparations. The Commission would meet and then submit recommendations to Congress for possible solutions to the injustices faced by African Americans for the last 400 years.
While Frum is sympathetic to the intent of reparations, he claims the logistics of making reparations actually work are so complex and problematic that they become impossible. For Frum the fundamental questions are “Who will get them? How much? Who will pay?” These are questions he claims Coates fails to address. He points out that the reparations paid to Japanese-Americans only went to those who had been detained in internment camps, not all Japanese- Americans; that is there was a specific wrong, and a reparation was paid for that wrong. For Frum, the process of determining who should receive reparations is too complex to make it plausible and practical.
However, there is a deeper point behind Coates’ proposal that seems to have gotten lost in the debate. In his response to Frum Coates writes: “The problem of reparations has never been practicality. It has always been the awesome ghosts of history.” Those ghosts are the ongoing, systemic, entirely legal means by which people of color, especially but not exclusively African-Americans, have been denied the basic rights that the overwhelming majority of white citizens enjoy: the right to live where you please, the right to a decent education, the right to fair access to jobs, services and training, the right freedom from being terrorized and freedom from being categorized as “other” or “less than.” What Coates is calling for in his call for reparations is for America to face the truth of its past and correct the historical narrative it has been teaching and telling for 400 years.
To use another metaphor, America has many skeletons in its historical closet which have been noted but not really given a full hearing. They are skeletons we in essence say we know are there, but for which we deny responsibility because we were not there when they happened. They are the skeletons of colonial expansion, of chattel slavery that built the economy, of lands stolen from Native Americans and Mexican citizens after the Mexican-American War, of the exploitation of Japanese, Chinese, Irish and East European workers, and so much more. While we say America is the land of opportunity and “the home of the free and the land of the brave,” it also is the land where hundreds of thousands of Africans died in the Middle Passage, where Native cultures were obliterated, and where millions of citizens were restricted and beaten because of the color of their skin. These are the ghosts of our history, the skeletons in our closet, that the reparations discussion hopes to unearth.
As worthy as Coates proposal is, I find it lacking. In his story of Clyde Ross and the Contract Buyer’s League of Chicago, he illustrates a principle articulated by the great 19th century African-American orator/abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Douglass wrote: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Douglass goes on to describe how oppressed persons gain power only if they demand and seize that power. Coates’ proposal does not so much seem impractical to me as it does naïve. If the Congress has not taken up HR 40 in 25 years, why would they even consider it in this racially-charged, partisan political environment? If African-Americans or any oppressed group is depending on Congress to take up the reparations question, they are going to wait forever. The Contract Buyers League did not enable 130 people to own their homes by asking nicely; they challenged the system by their numbers and financially forced the realtors to come to the bargaining table. They withheld their mortgage and fees until the realtors decided they had no choice but to submit. In the same way if reparations are to even be discussed, the discussion must be forced upon us.
In different ways both essayist bell hooks and psychologist Howard Stevenson outline ways African- Americans can and must go through what hooks calls a “psychic conversion” to face and overcome the stress racism brings living in a white supremacist society. I would add that whites such as myself in a parallel way must go through a psychic conversion in which we expose the lie of our “color blindness” and the myth of a post-racial society. We need to take responsibility for the privileges, power, and wealth we have inherited and still enjoy because of a system that favors us simply because we are white. The point is not guilt or shame, but setting things right. I am not at all suggesting that individuals don’t have responsibility for their decisions or their actions, but that responsibility needs to be exercised on a level playing field, in a system that truly provides “liberty and justice for all.” That is not a system that has ever existed for people of color in this society.
I have no idea how reparations might work, but before we can address that issue, as a society and as individuals, we need to face the realities – past and present – that make the case for a discussion about reparations even necessary. This is not a discussion that will start in Washington, but needs to start in schools, churches, homes and community centers. It needs to be a conversation that grows to the point that goes to Washington rather than comes from Washington. I am thankful for Ta-Nehisi Coates for getting the conversation started. I encourage us to read the articles, and continue the conversation wherever we are.
Friday, June 06, 2014
Today we learned of another mass shooting, this time on the campus of Seattle Pacific University, a small private Christian university outside Seattle. Two weeks ago the same sort of event happened at University of California Santa Barbara. Last night and every night in cities across the nation, the same thing happened, as young people, mostly young men, were gunned down. Meaningless deaths of mostly young people due to another young person wielding a gun.
In a recent "Daily Show with John Stewart", Stewart turned his satirical wit on the news media which has now begun to portray such meaningless slaughter of our young as “inevitable.”(The segment on guns starts at about the 3:15 point; its powerful and worth a look). Things have gotten so absurd that even the NRA is not sure how far its gun-slinging, gun-toting enthusiasts should be encouraged to go. (See this link to the article.)
The truth is only a fraction of the gun-related violence in our country ever makes the news, and usually only when such incidents involve white folks in places like elementary schools and college campuses. As horrific as the SPU and UC-Santa Barbara shootings are (a death is a death no matter where it occurs), the media generally ignores the carnage occurring in poor and urban communities all the time. Yet as Stewart points out, even white kids shooting white kids now has become "old news."
When the media pundits try to get to the causes they point to mental illness, family stress, depression, low self esteem and the like – all of which are contributing factors – but rarely do the mention the one common factor: the ready availability of guns in this country whether thru legal or illegal means. Take the guns away and there will still be troubled youth and a certain level of violence will exist, but the dead body count will go way down.
Let me share a personal illustration. When I was 22 years old living in Boston, I was mugged by an assailant who demanded I give him my watch. When I resisted, he hit me several times with a baseball bat. I had to go to the emergency room but I survived the ordeal. Had that same event occurred today, most likely I would have been shot, the difference being in the late 1970’s guns were very rare in even seemingly “dangerous” neighborhoods such as where I lived. Don’t get me wrong, there were certain places one did not go to maintain safety, but in six years of working with street kids I never saw a gun and only hear one a few times. There was violence to be sure, but few firearms.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am passionate about addressing issues of inequity and injustice in many areas, and violence of any kind is something that needs to be addressed. However, let’s not be stupid or blind or in absolute denial. If we want to reduce the carnage of our young people which has become all too common, we need to start with reducing the availability of guns. We need to pass laws strengthening and expanding background checks, limit sales to one handgun a month, require fingerprint identification and licensing, hold gun dealers responsible for prohibiting straw purchases and require all guns lost or stolen to be reported the police. Hunters can still hunt. Target shooters can still shoot. People who feel they must have a gun due to some distorted view of the Second Amendment can still get their gun. All I am suggesting is that we don’t make it as easy to get a gun.
If we want to reduce the carnage, the solution is not difficult – its starts with the guns. And to those who say that gun violence is inevitable, let’s call such logic what it is: BULLS**T!