Saturday, January 30, 2010

How The Poor Have Been Dropped from our Political Vocabulary

There was a time when politicians of both major parties talked about the poor. While they had different philosophies as to the causes of and solutions to poverty, they fell all over themselves and each other to convince the public that they cared about the needs of the most vulnerable and least resourced in our society. However, not long ago politicians changed their vernacular, and now nary a peep is heard about poverty or the needs of the poor in the political public square.

Through nearly two-thirds of his State of the Union address, Pres. Obama talked about economic issues, and never once did he mention poverty or the poor. He talked about banks, small businesses, homeowners, the unemployed, the middle class, and those making over $250,000 a year. Never once did he acknowledge that in the midst of this economic recession the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to grow, and that the so-called “middle class” is a shrinking phenomenon. If I was a single parent living on welfare, a homeless person, an unemployed young adult with no high school education, or a parent piecing together two or three jobs, and I was listening to that speech, I would not have found myself there at all. One oblique reference might have been the 30 million people without health insurance, but their needs are not the focus of the debate, but rather whether or not the President can get his coveted political victory or if the Republicans can stymie that attempt. If I was a poor person I would feel that I do not exist, at least as far as Congress, the President, and the media are concerned.

Now this is nothing new, candidate Obama rarely, if ever mentioned the poor, nor did candidates Clinton, McCain or the other presidential hopefuls. And certainly Pres George W. Bush did not mention the poor, or concern himself with the needs of the poor. Oh, we have banks that are too big to fail, large companies that need to be bailed out, and all sorts of homeowners facing foreclosure. But we rarely hear the “p” word; even when the "p" word is what is growing. To talk of poverty might spark “class warfare” and we in the US we don’t have a socioeconomic class system…..Ri-i-i-ght!

Add to that the recent decision of the Supreme Court to allow lobbying and special interest groups free rein to spend as much as they want to influence political campaigns. So these special interest groups can hold candidates hostage with promises of campaign money or the lack thereof, depending on how they vote. For all the talk about the Republicans being the stand ins for the health insurance industry, many of the key Democrats are also beholden to the health insurance, pharmaceutical and medical professional lobbying groups according campaign contribution watchdog Open Secrets.Org . So if I am a person without means, I have no voice. As former NY Times reporter Chris Hedges wrote recently “Democracy in America is a Useful Fiction." Our government is not set up to respond to the needs of the people, but in all too many cases it is aligned to give itself to the highest bidder.

So sorry poor folks. You don’t count. Now if you have a crisis like Haiti, we might send you some supplies and people to help, but as the poor people of New Orleans found out, after the immediate crisis has passed, it is much more profitable and media-savvy to rebuild places like the Superdome and the downtown business area than it is to rebuild your homes in your neighborhoods that still lie devastated.

Supposedly, the recession is over because Wall Street feels confident that stocks will continue to climb. However, we need other measures of prosperity than just how those wealthy enough to invest feel about their investments. When 10% (but actually more like 15-17%) of people can't find a job, the recession is not over. When the public schools that serve the children in the poorest neighborhoods, continue to be under-resourced, under-funded and under performing, the recession is not over. When 30 million people can’t pay for basic health care, the recession is not over. When the prison building business is booming along with the oil companies, the recession is not over.

Jesus said, that that poor you will always have with you, not as an excuse to do nothing, but rather a reminder that the poor are part of society too, and their needs and aspirations count as much (or more) as the likes of Wall Street, Citibank and Goldman Sachs. In economic terms that means the recession is over when all are lifted from a life of survival and struggle. When CEOs are ashamed to be given huge bonuses while others suffer, and those who are most vulnerable and least resourced have their basic needs met, then the recession will be over. That is, when the poor are no longer ignored, then the recession can be announced as over.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Why Legal Gun Owners Ought to Support Gun Violence Prevention

It has been just over a year since I, along with eleven others, were arrested for our direct action against Colisimo’s Gun Shop. We had focused on Colisimo’s because ATF statistics had indicated that his shop was a major source of illegal guns used in crimes. As it turned out Mr. Colisimo profited greatly from the straw purchasing process that gets illegal guns in to the hands of street criminals, causing harm and fear to many law-abiding citizens in urban neighborhoods. In September the US Attorney agreed with us and shut Mr. Colisimo down. The work of Heeding God’s Call continues as we are now looking to take similar actions against gun sellers in the Philadelphia area and even beyond.

One of the stranger experiences for me over this past year has been the number of legal gun owners who have accused us of wanting to take away their Second Amendment rights to bear arms. Some of these folks have responded to my blogs anonymously or written me private emails with their objections. Putting aside the argument whether that is what the founding fathers actually intended (for now the Supreme Court in its twisted logic seems to believe they did), our issue is not with legal gun owners, but rather with a huge loophole in the gun selling process that allows for legally sold guns to quickly and without retribution get into the hands of people who use those guns in crime. We want common sense laws that say if a person has a gun lost or stolen, they should have to report it to the police. We want to limit the sale of handguns to one per month. That is it.

What I don’t understand is why legal gun owners would oppose such common sense laws. The argument they give, and their NRA sponsors feed them, is the “slippery slope” argument. If we limit handguns, pretty soon, we will want to take their hunting rifles and collector guns as well. Now I will admit, I want to take AK-47’s and other assault rifles off the open market, but I am not out to take away anyone’s right to own a gun. The fallacy of the slippery slope argument is that if there is a slope it’s going the way of gun owners not against them. In the last year Pres. Obama has authorized the carrying of concealed weapons in National Parks and on Amtrak trains - laws that had been in force since the Reagan era. See an MSNBC report from on these developments here.

The fact is all these illegal guns put gun owners in a bad light. Every time there is a shooting, it emphasizes again the lethal nature of our culture. Every time a cop is gunned down, a campus is shot up, or an army base terrorized (as has happened far too often in the past few years), it sends the message that people with guns are a menace to society. Now I don’t necessarily believe that, but I do know that having guns around makes everyone more vulnerable, and people with guns more dangerous. So if I was a legal gun owner, I would want to make sure that people who do such things would be prevented for taking such actions.

Even using the pro-gun argument that handguns provide security, wouldn’t it make sense to keep guns out of the hands of those who should not have them? If a gun is “stolen” or “lost” (the strawbuyer’s thinly veiled excuse for not having a gun they bought and sold to another), shouldn’t it be reported for the safety of all involved? If the pro-gun lobby is so concerned about safety, why not support efforts to keep us all safe?

Now for many I realize the issue is not just safety but also the “freedom” to own and purchase a gun. However freedom comes with responsibility, and while I trust that most gun owners are responsible, to pass common sense laws for the benefit of a whole community is also part of that responsibility. Responsible gun owners don’t keep loaded guns lying around their homes, so why do we allow illegal loaded guns in our communities? Responsible gun owners keep guns out of the hands of those not mature enough or stable enough to use them, so why do we have laws that allow such people to have guns in our neighborhoods?

Now I realize is that this issue will never be won by logic alone. For gun owners to rail against a group trying to stop gun shops that participate in straw purchasing defies logic. For gun owners to object to laws that will not limit them, but make it more difficult for illegal guns to get on the street, defies logic. When the slippery slope argument is used or when the NRA says that such laws will limit freedom, they aren’t spouting rational arguments, they are appealing to gun owners' fears that someone will take their gun away; for many gun owners the issue isn’t about logic but stirred up emotions. Furthermore, as I have said elsewhere in this blog, there is something deeply embedded in American culture that make the right to own guns as patriotic as mom and apple pie.

I am reminded of the Bob Dylan song “Blowing in the Wind” made popular years ago by Peter, Paul and Mary. While the song was a statement about the devastation of war, there is a line in there that speaks to our current struggle over the sale and use of guns

“How many deaths will it take 'til he knows that too many people have died?”

That’s the question that drives me and many others in the gun violence prevention movement to keep at it. Legal gun owners, if they thought straight about it, would and should join our efforts.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti, Christians & Being At Our Best

For the past several days the attention of much of the world has been fixated on the devastation and suffering of the Haitian people. The images coming to us via the media have been heartbreaking, as have the stories of people in this country concerned for the condition of their friends and loved ones trapped in the crisis that is growing there.

As I have followed the reports coming out of Haiti, I have found it both amazing and heartwarming to see the way people of all different countries, races, political persuasions, economic circumstances and religious convictions have come together to bring help and relief to the Haitian people. While the process of resolving the logistical details for actually getting food, water, and medical help to the people in need has been daunting, the magnitude of the response has demonstrated the concrete compassion of people when there is a need. The fact that the Chinese were the first relief team to land in Haiti, followed by the US Army, the Brazilians, and the Japanese is telling in itself. Except for the few inane media commentators trying to make a story, religious, political and ideological differences have been put aside so as to focus on one goal: helping the traumatized and devastated people of Haiti.

Crises of this magnitude seem to bring out the best in people. As with Haiti people respond to situations of great need, whether it was the aftermath of 9/11, the response of people to Hurricane Katrina, and the Southeast Asian Tsunami a few Christmases ago. The fact that so many people and nations respond selflessly and generously highlights the truly good and caring dimension of the human spirit. It is as if we are at our best when we are responding to people in need.

However, when the media has decided that the crisis is no longer a major story, life goes back to “normal”, and all those differences that separate us from one another, and make us distrustful and suspicious of the “other” kick back in. We begin to question the integrity, the motives and the morality of others; we become stingy, self-centered, and closed off to others.

Among the groups that have been quick to respond with great generosity and efficiency have been a number of Christian churches and relief organizations. There was church that immediately turned over leftover supplies for a disaster in Samoa to the Haitian disaster. Organizations such as World Relief, World Vision and Habitat for Humanity have been right there, not to mention the many mission organizations that were already in Haiti running schools, hospitals and other services. While there is no reason to highlight these organizations over other groups doing good work as well, as a Christian I have been gratified to know that Christians are right there on the front lines.

Thus, it was extremely disconcerting that some media outlets chose to focus on the idiotic and heartless comment by Pat Robertson that the devastation in Haiti was somehow God’s judgment on a “pact with the devil” that Haiti made when it ceased to be a colony of France. Not only is such a comment incredibly stupid, it ignores the sociopolitical realities that have made Haiti one of the poorest nations in the world. So why does the media focus on him? Ironically, one of the most direct Scriptural responses to Robertson came from comedian/commentator Jon Stewart (who is Jewish), who quoted a half dozen Scriptures on compassion and helping the poor, as the better Christian response. See Robertson’s comment and Stewart’s commentary at this link)

Unfortunately many non-Christian people skeptical of religion view the Christian faith as embodied in the exclusionary and judgmental attitudes of people like Robertson. All I can say is that the faith Robertson proclaims is not the Christian faith I hold.

From my perspective the Christian faith is embodied in the compassionate response being seen in Haiti. One of the truly beneficial things about the Christian faith is that it calls people to always operate out of their best selves and give of themselves to others in concrete and even sacrificial ways. Jesus said: Whoever want to become great among you, must be your servant…For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10.43-45). Christians are to be people who give themselves to others as a way of life.

Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder’s detractors often commented that his theological works should not be considered theology, but rather ethics. However, Yoder responded that our ethics reflect our theology, and that in essence theology was meaningless if it did not lead to concrete ethical action. In other words, Jesus did not come to give us a theological treatise, but a way of life.

The way people around the world (of all faiths and no faith) are responding is the way God created us to live. The theological concept is imago dei (being created in the image of God). We are called to affirm and live out our connectedness to others, to be giving and compassionate, to count other’s needs as important as our own, and to act concretely to meet the needs of those around us. In that sense being Christian is being at our best all the time.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The God That Fails

I was thinking about all the wasted energy being spent by the media and others trying to find a scapegoat for the fact that a would-be terrorist got through the checkpoints and protocols and nearly blew up a plane on Christmas Day. As awful as such a tragedy might have been, finding a scapegoat rather than learning from the experience seems a real waste of time. Then I came across a column by David Brooks that said it much better than I ever could. So I reproduce it below or you can go to the following link.

The God That Fails

During the middle third of the 20th century, Americans had impressive faith in their own institutions. It was not because these institutions always worked well. The Congress and the Federal Reserve exacerbated the Great Depression. The military made horrific mistakes during World War II, which led to American planes bombing American troops and American torpedoes sinking ships with American prisoners of war.

But there was a realistic sense that human institutions are necessarily flawed. History is not knowable or controllable. People should be grateful for whatever assistance that government can provide and had better do what they can to be responsible for their own fates.

That mature attitude seems to have largely vanished. Now we seem to expect perfection from government and then throw temper tantrums when it is not achieved. We seem to be in the position of young adolescents — who believe mommy and daddy can take care of everything, and then grow angry and cynical when it becomes clear they can’t.

After Sept. 11, we Americans indulged our faith in the god of technocracy. We expanded the country’s information-gathering capacities so that the National Security Agency alone now gathers four times more data each day than is contained in the Library of Congress.

We set up protocols to convert that information into a form that can be processed by computers and bureaucracies. We linked agencies and created new offices. We set up a centralized focal point, the National Counterterrorism Center.

All this money and technology seems to have reduced the risk of future attack. But, of course, the system is bound to fail sometimes. Reality is unpredictable, and no amount of computer technology is going to change that. Bureaucracies are always blind because they convert the rich flow of personalities and events into crude notations that can be filed and collated. Human institutions are always going to miss crucial clues because the information in the universe is infinite and events do not conform to algorithmic regularity.

Resilient societies have a level-headed understanding of the risks inherent in this kind of warfare.

But, of course, this is not how the country has reacted over the past week. There have been outraged calls for Secretary Janet Napolitano of the Department of Homeland Security to resign, as if changing the leader of the bureaucracy would fix the flaws inherent in the bureaucracy. There have been demands for systemic reform — for more protocols, more layers and more review systems.

Much of the criticism has been contemptuous and hysterical. Various experts have gathered bits of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s biography. Since they can string the facts together to accurately predict the past, they thunder, the intelligence services should have been able to connect the dots to predict the future.

Dick Cheney argues that the error was caused by some ideological choice. Arlen Specter screams for more technology — full-body examining devices. “We thought that had been remedied,” said Senator Kit Bond, as if omniscience could be accomplished with legislation.

Many people seem to be in the middle of a religious crisis of faith. All the gods they believe in — technology, technocracy, centralized government control — have failed them in this instance.

In a mature nation, President Obama could go on TV and say, “Listen, we’re doing the best we can, but some terrorists are bound to get through.” But this is apparently a country that must be spoken to in childish ways. The original line out of the White House was that the system worked. Don’t worry, little Johnny.

When that didn’t work the official line went to the other extreme. “I consider that totally unacceptable,” Obama said. I’m really mad, Johnny. But don’t worry, I’ll make it all better.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration has to be seen doing something, so it added another layer to its stage play, “Security Theater” — more baggage regulations, more in-flight restrictions.

At some point, it’s worth pointing out that it wasn’t the centralized system that stopped terrorism in this instance. As with the shoe bomber, as with the plane that went down in Shanksville, Pa., it was decentralized citizen action. The plot was foiled by nonexpert civilians who had the advantage of the concrete information right in front of them — and the spirit to take the initiative.

For better or worse, over the past 50 years we have concentrated authority in centralized agencies and reduced the role of decentralized citizen action. We’ve done this in many spheres of life. Maybe that’s wise, maybe it’s not. But we shouldn’t imagine that these centralized institutions are going to work perfectly or even well most of the time. It would be nice if we reacted to their inevitable failures not with rabid denunciation and cynicism, but with a little resiliency, an awareness that human systems fail and bad things will happen and we don’t have to lose our heads every time they do.