Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas and Gratitude

Every Thanksgiving, I take time to list all the people, events and other things in my life from the previous year, for which I am grateful. This allows me to enter into Advent with a sense of gratitude and hope for the year to come. As in past years I conducted my personal Thanksgiving ritual. However, with the polarization in Congress, the strong clear message of the Occupy Movement that our economic system is fundamentally flawed, the ongoing “head in the sand” attitude of both parties unwilling to address the needs of 12 million undocumented immigrants living in our country, the ongoing threat of gun violence, and the desperate needs for reform in urban public schools, not to mention my own ongoing health struggles, I have found it hard to be thankful.

Yet today, as I approach the celebration of the birth of Jesus, I am reminded that gratitude is a choice not a consequence. I am reminded that each day I can choose to be thankful for the blessings and the challenges in my life. Even though I do not always live up to the values I espouse, I am drawn to a vision of the world articulated in Mary’s Magnificat and rehearsed every Christmas:

               God has performed mighty deeds with his arm
               And has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts
               God has brought down rulers from their thrones
               But has lifted up the humble
               God has filled the hungry with good things
               But has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1.51-53)

No, the vision of a “great reversal” of power and fortune that Mary puts forth is not fulfilled in our time, nor in any time. Yet it is the promise and hope that my faith in Christ gives me and makes me realize who and whose I am in the great scheme of time and history.

So despite my frustrations social, political and personal, I choose this day to be grateful for Life, for friends, for a sense of purpose, and for fellow strugglers like so many of you who read this blog, who like me live into the vision of the world Mary saw with the birth of her son. May we continue to work for a safer, more just, more humane world, even as we give thanks for the lives we have today.

              

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Yes, Freedom Can Be Expensive

Now that the Occupy Philly protesters have been removed from Dilworth Plaza surrounding City Hall, the city has estimated that the 8 week occupation cost the city $1,052,000, mostly in police overtime. While this number is accurate, its prominence in the media (such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and the major news channels) has shown how skewed the reporting has been. While the media seemed quick to report any isolated incidents of violence or criminal behavior, and focus on arrests such as the sit down at the Comcast Building or the demonstration outside the police station, they have given precious little space to investigating and analyzing the claims that the occupiers have been highlighting, such as the huge tax breaks that major corporations like Comcast have been given by the city. How much money has this corporate giveback cost the residents of the city? Not a word from the media on that.

As city officials have been quick to note the struggles to balance the city budget is part of the struggle of the 99% the occupiers claim to represent. Overall, I think the city officials, especially Police Commissioner Ramsay and Mayor Nutter, did their best to remain open to the concerns and demands of the occupiers. The reason they were removed was so that a multimillion renovation providing hundreds of jobs for local residents could go forward. That fact itself caused a split in the occupiers, between some who wanted to remain, and others who felt that the promise of jobs (a major concern of the Occupy movement) required them to move off the Dilworth Plaza sight.

The Occupy Philly activists have pledged to continue to bring forth their message. I hope they do. However, unless the media chooses to report on the real substance of the movement, we may not get to hear their message

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Priest, an Economist and An Occupier Went into a Bar….


What do a 15th century priest, a deceased British economist, and the Occupy Wall Street Movement have in common? This question came to me as I reflected on a sermon by Chris Hershberger Esh this past Sunday at West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship (WPMF). Using passages from Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 25 as his texts, Chris spoke about the significance of Occupy Wall Street, and its local affiliate, Occupy Philly, for Christians concerned about social justice. The two Biblical passages mentioned above both reflect a concern about the rich and the poor, and the powerful and the powerless in society, and unequivocally show that God is on the side of the poor, the powerless and the oppressed. Chris contended, rightly I think, that the Occupy Wall Street movement had accomplished two things in its short-lived two month existence. First, the movement has changed the national conversation about the economy from talking about bringing down the debt to talking about the vast and gross inequities of wealth in this country, and indeed around the world. With its now familiar refrain “we are the 99%,” the movement has caused political leaders, as well as ordinary citizens, to consider why it is so many people are experiencing not only a loss of jobs, but a loss of real income, while an extremely small minority, the 1%, have experienced the greatest rise in wealth in recent history. The Occupy Movement has forced us to ask what is it about an economic system that lavishly rewards the few at the expense of the many.

However, it was the second point Chris made that has prompted this reflection. Responding to the ongoing question in the media, “What do the Occupiers want?” Chris said that there is no simple solution that will cause the occupiers to pack up their tents and go home. Referring to the Occupy encampment on Dilworth plaza surrounding Philadelphia’s City Hall, Chris shared how the occupiers have welcomed homeless people to join their encampment and have provided them with support, food and solidarity in a way that they can’t find in a shelter. Chris himself works as an outreach worker for a local homeless shelter, and has said that the numbers in their shelter are down because so many of their normal clients have chosen to join the occupiers rather than come in the shelter. He pointed out that in their encampments the occupiers are seeking to model the kind of society they envision, a society where the haves and have-nots can reside together in community. Furthermore, the Occupy movement has given the homeless a platform and a voice to demonstrate that the society must also listen to them in their struggle for survival. Such an arrangement is not easy to maintain, given the fact that many homeless people suffer other psychic wounds such as addiction, mental illness and personal trauma. Further, as a recent John Stewart report on the occupiers at New York’s Zucotti Park showed, even among the occupiers normal resentments and even class distinctions have developed.  However, instead of ignoring or rationalizing these issues, the occupiers have sought to welcome all as fellow human beings worthy of dignity as well provision for their basic human needs.

All of this brings me to the 15th century priest and the British economist. Menno Simons, from whom the Mennonite church takes its name, was a Roman Catholic priest who came in contact with a splinter group of Christians known as the Anabaptists. Menno became convinced of the power of their claims and ended up being one of their most prolific spokesmen and writers. One of the many distinctive insights that the Anabaptists have offered the Christian church has been the notion that when Jesus talked about the Reign (or Kingdom) of God being among us, he wasn’t talking about some far off pie-in-the-sky promise to keep desperate people focused on heaven so they wouldn’t think about their despicable living conditions. Anabaptists, including Menno, believed that Jesus was talking about the power of God to change human reality now, and that as Christians we are called to live as much as possible according to the dictates of Jesus, particularly those dictates outlined in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). We are to live now as God desire all people to live in heaven. We are to live out the challenge embedded in the Lord ’s Prayer to follow God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.” As I listened to Chris describe how the Occupy Wall Street movement was seeking to model the kind of society they envision, I could not help but think of this central Anabaptist conviction. While not in any way a religious or spiritual movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement is calling all of us, and especially people of faith, to consider that God may calling us to a new level of awareness and commitment to live out the values of God’s reign here and now.

In a different time and place, the British economist E.F. Schumacher wrote a simple but profound book in 1973 entitled Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Schumacher demonstrates how macroeconomic thinking with its focus on quantitative measures, such as GNP, GDP and corporate bottom lines, tells only a portion of the story of a community’s or a nation’s economic health. As he points out, just because a nation may be cumulatively wealthy on paper, that does not mean that said wealth is equitably distributed or enjoyed by all members of that community or nation. Schumacher argues that economists need  also to consider qualitative measures of economic health, such as environmental health, the quality of community relationships and the appropriate use of technology, thereby paying attention to indicators that measure quality of life rather than simply a cumulative number.

Schumacher also persuasively argued for a regional and local approach to economic development that takes into account skills, needs, and resources that are locally available. He argues not only for a more de-centralized distribution of economic power, but also a more environmentally friendly approach to economic activity. In a time (the 1970’s) when the raging economic debate was between capitalism vs. communism, Schumacher argued for a third way of economics, which today is still kept alive by the New Economics Institute, which regularly presents living models of Schumacher’s third way of economic thinking. Were he alive today Schumacher would point to  the Occupy Wall Street decentralized democratic decision-making as a model of equitable and compassionate living.

Bill Moyer (not be confused with Bill Moyers, the NPR journalist), a longtime community activist and author on the nature of social movements, noted that often the ideas that spark social movements lie in seed form for years before they emerge in a full-fledged social movement agenda. In many ways the Occupy Wall St. Movement is the culmination of struggle, emotions, and seminal ideas that have been around for a long time. While politicians and media types like to characterize the Occupy movement as a the result of angry radicals who are just a momentary phenomenon, in reality it is an expression of many ideas and concerns that have existed in various forms for a long time. Whether or not Occupy Wall Street survives the latest series of attempts to remove them from public spaces, the hopes, dreams and ideas it expresses continue to gain momentum and take shape because they give voice to thoughts, concerns and frustrations that have been around for decades if not centuries.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

What if Zaccheus was a Wall Street Banker?

Readers of the New Testament are well acquainted with the story in Luke 19 of Zaccheus the tax collector who made a radical change in his life after an encounter with Jesus. For those not familiar with the story, let me give a brief summary. Zaccheus was short, irascible man in the employ of the Roman governing authorities as a tax-collector. Think Danny DeVito with a tunic. One day Jesus was passing with his entourage through Jericho where Zaccheus lived. Since he was short, Zaccheus had to climb a tree to get a look at the itinerant rabbi who was causing such a stir as he passed through town. When Jesus came by the tree, he noticed Zaccheus and invited himself to the man’s house. Zaccheus scampered down from his viewing stand and according the gospel writer, Luke, “he welcomed him gladly.” Now, there is no record of what transpired as Jesus and Zaccheus met for lunch, but when they emerged Zaccheus pledged to give away half of his wealth to the poor, and pay back four times over to anyone whom he had cheated. In response Jesus said “Today, salvation has come to this house.”


Given the current chant of the Occupy Movement against the “1%” of wealthy Americans who control 40-60% of the nation’s wealth (depending on which economist you are reading), I couldn’t help but wonder: What if Zaccheus lived today and was a Wall Street Banker, a Corporate CEO, or a Congressperson receiving donations from lobbyists, special corporate interests and wealthy donors? How would this story play out today?

There are both significant similarities and differences between Zaccheus and today’s “1%.” Like some of the 1%, Zaccheus was disproportionately wealthy and gained his wealth legally, even if unethically. For instance 1st century Palestinian tax collectors were allowed by law to extort their clients and keep the difference, just like bankers could legally offer funky mortgages and high risk investment options without full disclosure to their clients, or like CEO’s could give themselves huge bonuses with government bailout money. Like his 1% counterparts, Zaccheus would have considered himself entitled and not needing to concern himself with the impact of his actions and policies on those desperately struggling to survive and make ends meet. The political and economic system supported him in his actions, and he could honestly say that it was his right (by the law of the land) to do what he did and have what he possessed.

However, there are also significant differences. Unlike his 1% counterparts, Zaccheus did not really control the policies and purse strings of the national economy. In his society Zaccheus served at the behest of the Roman government and with the willful ignorance of the Jewish elite. At any point he could be stripped of his privileges and thrown into poverty. Secondly, tax collectors were universally despised by the people of their society, rich and poor, and so there was no way that Zaccheus would ever get a Jewish Businessman Award at a national prayer breakfast. No one would extol his virtues as a deep man of faith who also happened to be lavishly wealthy.

These distinctions make the response of Zaccheus to Jesus all the more significant. When Zaccheus decided to give half of his wealth way to the poor and pay back any one he had extorted four times over, he was committing occupational and class suicide. He was not only divesting his wealth, he was closing the door on ever attaining that level of economic security again. He was inherently challenging and exposing the exploitative Roman-Jewish elite political and economic system for what it was as a whistleblower who would forever be vilified by those who had allowed him to get his wealth. Furthermore, he did so with no assurance  that the poor people whom he had cheated would welcome him with open arms or trust him. Let’s face it, he had screwed them over big time, and such actions are difficult to forget and even harder to forgive. So to do what Zaccheus did involved great sacrifice and tremendous personal risk.

So when I hear the Wall Street and corporate CEO types justify their big bonuses by saying that otherwise they “could not attract talent” I find that reasoning pretty self-serving. When I hear leaders in Congress go on and on as to why we can’t let the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire, because it will somehow restrict creation of jobs, I find their excuses pretty flimsy. When I recall that a few years ago the Supreme Court ruled that when it comes to political contributions, corporations are just like individuals and therefore should not be limited in the amount financial influence they can have over the decisions of Congress, I think “who are you kidding?” When I go to OpenSecrets.org and see how much money both Democrats and Republicans receive from lobbyists and corporate PACs, I know that the interests of the common person are way down on their list of priorities despite their rhetoric. When I hear business leaders argue that we can’t place too many regulations on the actions of business and how it’s really unions not egregious corporate practices that are causing the recession in our country and world, I am not buying it.

What I am doing is waiting for a Zaccheus to blow the cover off the whole scam called the American capitalistic system and expose it for what it is. I appreciate the likes of Warren Buffet and others wealthy Americans who admit that they should pay higher taxes during these recessionary times. I also appreciate wealthy folks like George Soros who contribute their millions to progressive causes. However, I waiting for a wealthy insider like Zaccheus who not only gives his money away but also shows by his words and actions that the whole damned (I use this word quite deliberately) system is corrupt and needs to be radically restructured. Then salvation, liberation and justice will come to the house of America.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Questions Raised by the Occupy Movement


Like many of you I have been watching, reading and listening to the news about the Occupy Wall Street movement that is sweeping the country and indeed the world. Despite the attempts of critics to characterize the “occupiers” as leftist radicals, at least in the Philadelphia area there are grandmothers, housewives and regular folks lending their voice and support to those hardy souls camping out night after night around City Hall. Similar demonstrations have been cropping up in suburban and rural communities across Pennsylvania. Just as I saw when I visited Madison, WI this past spring, this movement is more mainstream than most leaders and commentators want to admit. People of all classes, colors and backgrounds are tired of the growing disparity between the few (the 1%) on the backs of the majority (the 99%).

One criticism of the Occupy Movement put forth by the pundits is that they have no clear agenda. The Tea Party folks have latched onto the notion of less government and lower taxes. However, the Occupy movement has set it sights on something broader and thus less clearly identifiable: the carnivorous corporate culture that allowed corporations, banks, lobbyists, and financial institutions like Goldman Sachs to make bundles of money legally but unethically with little more than a slap on the hand by the government. This corporate elite has spread the myth that more taxes will inhibit job growth, and yet after years of the so-called Bush Tax Cuts (which Obama signed into extension), we have had the worst recession since the Great Depression and jobs have been lost and not gained by this policy. People have finally seen through the fallacy of those myths, and are calling Corporate America and Wall Street to account. The problem is that it’s easier to march on City Hall or the White House than it is the disparate entity known as Corporate America. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t have an agenda.
Recently at a public forum, I asked Christian activist and author Shane Claiborne how he viewed the Occupy Movement, and he made what I felt was an astute observation. He said that for social movements to succeed they must have clear and concrete goals, and that the Occupy movement had not gotten there yet. However, he said he felt that the movement was raising important questions that we as a society need to consider. So I have been thinking about what some of those questions might be.

Chris Hedges in an article entitled “A Movement Too Big to Fail” beat me to it, and raised some questions I think are worth considering. Then I will add a few of my own. Hedges writes:

What kind of nation is it that spends far more to kill enemy combatants and Afghan and Iraqi civilians than it does to help its own citizens who live below the poverty line?

What kind of nation is it that permits corporations to hold sick children hostage while their parents frantically bankrupt themselves to save their sons and daughters?

What kind of nation is it that tosses its mentally ill onto urban heating grates?

What kind of nation is it that abandons its unemployed while it loots its treasury on behalf of speculators?

What kind of nation is it that ignores due process to torture and assassinate its own citizens?

What kind of nation is it that refuses to halt the destruction of the ecosystem by the fossil fuel industry, dooming our children and our children’s children?


Now for my questions:

What kind of nation routinely incarcerates its citizens of color and poverty with harsh snetences, while letting corporate raiders get off with paying a fine?
What kind of nation bankrupts and undermines its public school systems and then blames teachers and students for not "making the grade?"
How long will we allow our government leaders to be beholden to lobbyists and corporate interests simply because they can give bigger campaign contributions than we can?

How long will we allow our sense of well-being as a nation and as individuals to be defined by our bank accounts rather than a sense of equity, decency, and justice toward one another regardless of race, religious creed, or ethnicity?

Could it be that what is happening in the Occupy Movement is an expression true, grassroots democracy, and that what passes for democracy every 2 or 4 years is just a shadow of the real thing?
These are the kind of questions the Occupy Movement raises for me. These questions call for a radical change not only in our economic policies but our whole way of ordering and thinking about our society. The questions won’t go away just because some pundits think it’s not “realistic.” My sense is that this movement is for real and the questions it raises need to continue to be asked until we as a people start moving in a different direction. The reality is that the movement must come from the streets, because as 19th century civil rights leader and abolitionist Frederick Douglass said the powerful never give up their power willingly, it must be taken from them.

Let’s just hope that power can be transferred without violence, that enough wealthy corporate leaders listen to folks like Warren Buffet, and say the jig is up. Those who are the top tier 1-2% must pay their dues, and  must give up some of their power and privilege if all of us are to have a just and equitable society.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Could "Occupy Wall Street" Be a Sign of Things to Come?

Early on Sunday morning, the New York Times reported that 700 protesters of the group "Occupy Wall Street" had been arrested attempting to cross the Brooklyn Bridge to Lower Manhattan where there have been a week of demonstrations in New York's financial sector. While they characterize themselves as a "leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders, and political persuasions;" they indicate "we are the 99%" referring to the 99% of Americans who have lost economic ground at the expense of the 1% of Americans (roughly those who earn $650,000 or more) who have gained significantly during the "great crash" of 2008. While the movement has been centered in New York, it has spread to to other cities like Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia.

Back in early March I went to Madison, WI and took part in the protests around the state capitol in response to Gov. Scott Walker's desire to suspend all bargaining rights for unions employed by the state. 50,000 people from all walks of life peacefully stormed the capitol, even occupying the rotunda for several days. It was inspiring as I heard filmmaker Michael Moore(producer of the 2009 doumentary "Capitalism: A Love Story"). Moore had shown up unexpectedly and shared that from his perspective the budget problem in Madison, Washington and elsewhere was not a shortage probelm but a distribution problem. That's the same issue in New York.

As I have added my voice (on this blog and elsewhere) to the rising chorus of protest of the suffering of the many at the neglect of the few, I have wondered when will people hit the streets in frustration and anger. The protests thus far have been nonviolent, but as I watched to video of the confrontation between police and protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge, I could see the possibility of violence erupting.

Celebrities like  actress Susan Sarandon and philosopher/social critic Cornel West have joined the protests, which has enabled it to get some press. The movement is still young and at least in Philadelphia still trying to get organized. I must say I don't know how a "leaderless movement" sustains itself, but I share their convictions and concerns.

Scholars who study social movements, sense that like the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, this is not a movement that will go away. Hopefully, it will not result in repressive violence we have seen in some places, but it has the feel of the Civil Rights and Vietnam War movements. The injustice has become increasingly clear, and the arrogance of those who would defend current financial policies has been palpable while unemployment continues to soar and even those who are employed continue to lose ground.

Last Sunday, I joined over 2000 people in Tindley Temple United Methodist Church, calling on city leaders to work decisively int eh creation of jobs for the thousands of unemployed and underemployed Philadelphians. We call ourselves POWER (Philadelphians Organized for Witness Empowerment and Rebuilding). Our gathering did not confront the police like Occupy Wall Street, but our sentiments are the same. We've had enough of the sell-outs, givebacks and lame excuses for cutting essential services while not raising taxes on the wealthy. We are tried of the political rhetoric from our elected officials and want some concerted actions. We will no longer let corporate leaders hid behind their lobbyists and PAC money; they too must be held accountable.


I only hope and pray that this movement will grow and be a sign of things to come whereby the powerbrokers and dealmakers in state capitols like  Madison and Harrisburg, inWashington, on Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms around the country will begin to recognize that while we 99% allowed this charade go on for too long, now their time of reckoning has come.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

If This is Class Warfare, Who Started the War?


Republican Congressional leaders John Boehner and Mitch MConnell have criticized President Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on people earning over  $1 million per year and called it “class warfare.” The comment would be laughable, if the Republican leaders had not convinced themselves that they really believed millionaires were under siege. It would be laughable that stalwart defenders of free market capitalism are now calling upon a Marxist concept to defend the right of the wealthy not to bear their share of the burden for balancing the nation’s budget. However, it’s not laughable because these guys are serious, and they want us to buy their garbage.
Last week the U.S. Census reported that in 2010 the percentage of people in the United States living under the poverty line rose to 15.1%, the highest rate since 1983 when it was 15.3%. That number rose .8% from 2009 to 2010. Put another way a Northeastern University study estimated that 37% (more than 1 in 3) young families were living in poverty. That’s a family of four living under $22,314. At such a low arbitrary level that means millions more Americans currently live at a level that does not enable them to make ends meet for basic needs. As is always the case, these figures are much higher for African Americans (27% under the poverty line) and Hispanics (26% under the poverty line).

But that’s not the whole story because get this: at the same time more people were losing their homes and jobs and slipping into poverty, the wealthiest 1% of the population (those earning more than $620,00/year in 2008 dollars) increased their income by an average of 7.3% from 2009 to 2010. This group also had an average tax cut of $97,000! Over the last decade the average income of this top 1% group quadrupled from $347,000 to $1.3 million. (This data came from the Coalition for Human Needs -www.cfn.org )
Simple math doesn’t lie – while the masses at the bottom lost money, the top 1% were gaining money. How did that happen? Class Warfare.

However, it didn’t happen last week when Obama announced his jobs and tax plan, it started 30 years ago under President Reagan who espoused “supply side economics” and substantially cut the taxes of the wealthy with the idea that the riches at the top would trickle down to the masses in the form of jobs and benefits (interestingly the last big rise in poverty came during that time). Reagan also went after the unions, particularly the Air Controllers, and framed the issue that the working people wanting better wages – they were the problem; and so unions have continually gotten weaker ever since.
Then along came the first President Bush and Pres. Clinton who pushed through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which made it easier for companies to go to Mexico in search of cheaper labor and less restrictive regulations about workers’ safety and environmental standards. Not only did NAFTA undercut the right of people to advocate for living wages, but it created all sorts of problems for Mexicans which has led to the mass migration north across the border in search of jobs, even if they come under threat of arrest and deportation.

Then came the second President Bush, who pushed through tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans in the promise that these tax cuts would create jobs. Oops – how is that jobs program coming? O yea we are up to 1983 levels of poverty and unemployment.
Then when Obama proposed universal health care the lobbyists and corporate interest groups flooded the congress with “influence” (read: lots of campaign money), so that the bill that passed (and they still criticize) was gutted of its most powerful provisions for health care for the needy.

At the same time the stock market crashed and the banks “too big to fail” almost did. People lost their homes to funky mortgages, and Presidents Bush and Obama bailed them out so they could help those folks restructure the mortgages, right? Oh no, the banks  gave their top execs those bonuses they had been so long denied for the great job they had done managing their and our money. At the same time along Goldman Sachs and their ilk were making bundles on our suffering and theirs.
Then in 2010, Republican governors like Scott Walker (WI), Tom Corbett (PA) and Chris Christie (NJ) (as well as many others) supported by ultra-right wing wealthy backers like the Koch brothers began slashing state budgets in the name of “fiscal responsibility). Interestingly they still couldn’t tax the rich or the corporations; they just cut public school budgets and social services for the poor and working class.

The really sad thing, is not only did both Republican and Democratic leaders systematically bilk the middle and working classes and pad the pockets of the wealthiest 5% of the population, but they got millions of middle class folks to think this problem was all due to “big government” “socialists and liberals" and “illegal immigrants.” So the Tea Party folks are marching and chanting for policies that literally will slash their incomes and undermine their financial security.
So Obama finally gets the courage to tax the rich, and Boehner and McConnell want to call it “class warfare?” Come on guys our “hope and change” President has finally had enough and he is calling your bluff. The war has been going on for a long time, and we are just getting around fighting back. And I hope we will. I hope we will take to the streets like the people of Cairo and Madison, Wisconsin, and say enough is enough. 

Employers if you want a tax break – create jobs. Rich folks, don’t hide behind the line “it will hurt small business;” we can create tax credits for small business employers. Provide support and incentives for green jobs and local businesses to flourish. Stop giving tax breaks to the Exxons of the world, and let the rich folks man up like Warren Buffett, and say, you know, $97,000 in tax cuts, that’s not needed. Let them show that they care about the financial state of the country. Let them show they want to part of the solution to the debt crisis. Let them bear their part of the financial burden.
Class warfare – yea it’s been going on for 30 years. Let’s just keep in mind who started the war.





Friday, September 09, 2011

A Beginning and New Era for a Troubled School


On Tuesday, September 6 I attended the opening ceremonies for the new West Philadelphia High School (WPHS), best known to most folks as the alma materof actor-singer Will Smith. However, the school has had long and, more recently, a troubled history characterized by violence, revolving door leadership, and persistently low test scores. At the same time it has been nationally recognized for its innovative Auto Mechanics academy, and the Urban Leadership academy, which involves students in addressing local community issues such as vacant lots and abandoned buildings. Despite these positives the public image of WPHS has been persistently negative. However, as one who has met students and teachers, I have come to know it as place where committed teachers and students have struggled to provide a quality education amidst of environment of political rancor and declining resources.
For the past four years I have been part of the West Philadelphia Community Partners (WPCP), a collection of parents, community members and other interested persons advocating and working to assure that the students of WPHS get the quality education they need and deserve. While the opening ceremonies featured political luminaries such as Mayor Michael Nutter, Councilwoman Jamie Blackwell  State Senator Vincent Hughes, and acting superintendent Leo Nunnery, the real heroes were the students, alumni, parents and community members of WPCP who had labored for years to get the new state of the art school built.

The Community Partners came together nearly ten years ago when then-superintendent Paul Vallas announced plans to construct of new school buildings throughout the city, including WPHS. Through the organizing efforts of the Philadelphia Student Union and support from the Philadelphia Education Fund, WPCP met monthly to propose plans for a small school model for the new school that would have 3-4 smaller learning communities in the large building. We proposed a particular architectural design to fit this proposal in consultation with Concordia LLC, an architectural firms specializing in innovative school design. Along with several others I attended a meeting with then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to advocate for our design and the small schools approach. When Dr. Ackerman announced that WPHS would be part of her Promise Academy program, the WPCP advocated for a partnership with John Hopkins University. While in the end all of the specific suggestions and proposals put forth by the WPCP were rejected, we continued to be a voice of the community advocating on behalf of students and parents for quality urban education.
I joined WPCP about four years ago after reading about several highly publicized incidents of violence between students and teachers. While I do not live in the community, I am a member of West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship, which meets just a few blocks from the school. As a representative of our church, I helped organize a breakfast of local faith community leaders in support of the WPCP’s efforts. I offered my expertise and input when necessary, but mostly I simply “showed up” in what some have called a “ministry of presence.” Currently, I am a member of the School Advisory Council, a group of community people who work closely with the new principal, Mary Dean, to keep the lines of communication between the school and the community open.

At the opening ceremonies I sat next to a woman whose 11th grade son was transferring from a private school to West Philadelphia High School She sounded so proud as she told me that he had joined the football team and was excited to be in a new state-of-the-art school building. As the students filed into the gym with their new uniforms and took their places in the bleachers, she beamed with joy. In that gym there was a feeling of hope and sense that a new chapter in the 100 year old school’s history was about to begin. I felt privileged and excited to be part of the process that helped put a glow on that mother’s face. I continue to serve in this way seeking to come alongside those folks so long denied privileges I can too easily take for granted (like a quality public education) by joining with them in seeking the justice they deserve.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Gun Industry - Making Bundles of Money at Our Expense

I continue my discussion of the church's response to the gun violence movement by now looking at the gun industry. Simply stated the gun manufacturing industry has avested interest in selling as many firearms as possible, regardless of the social costs due to firearm injuries and deaths. Guns are big business and this section I try to illustrate just how extensive this business is



Gun Manufacturers
It is tempting for many people concerned about gun violence to attribute the grim statistics on gun-related violence solely to the social and psychological conditions. However, there is entire industry of gun manufacturers and gun dealers whose financial success depends on a continually expanding market of gun dealers and gun users. Additionally, there are numerous trade journals and the media outlets that are integral to the promotion of the gun industry. Thus, this huge economic force contributing to gun violence also must be examined if one is to fully appreciate the magnitude of the challenge facing gun violence prevention forces. Diaz (1999) describes the firearms industry, including the manufacturers, distributers, dealers, and promoters, as “a little money making machine” (p. 85). 

While often the gun industry seeks to defend itself against gun control advocates by talking about constitutional rights and the preservation of basic American values, essentially the gun industry is in business to make money. As Diaz (1999) writes: “The ultimate fact is that the gun industry is simply a business and nothing more." It is neither a national trust nor a repository of American values. … [People who make, sell or import guns] are businessmen. They are in the game because they want to make money and as much of it as possible” (p.3). Yet, unlike industries such as the auto or pharmaceutical industries, the firearms industry is relatively unregulated and operates without accountability and public scrutiny.

Gun manufacturing has been operating in the United States since 1836 when Samuel Colt won a U.S. patent for his Colt revolver (Diaz, 1999).  Hoovers.com (2011) reports that currently there are approximately 300 gun manufacturers operating in the U.S. who earn a combined profit of $5 billion. Additionally, there are a number of foreign-based companies that sell firearms in the lucrative U.S. market and include some of the more well-known and profitable companies, such as Smith & Wesson (England), Beretta (Italy), Browning (Japan) and Glock (Austria). However, the distinction gets blurred because foreign based companies set up U.S. subsidiaries to get around import restrictions. Moreover, gaining information on these companies is difficult  because all but one major gun manufacturer – Sturm, Ruger  & Company – are privately owned, and conceal information that is required of publicly traded corporations (Diaz, 1999).

Like all industries the gun industry has had cycles of success and downturn. The most recent upturn for the gun industry occurred in the 1980’s when gun executives recognized that the market for hunting rifles was in decline, that the legal gun market was saturated, and that few new markets were opening up. To address this declining trend, the gun industry began introducing handguns to the market, and promoting various “innovations” that increased the accuracy and firepower of handguns. Playing on the theme of fear and the need for self-defense, the gun industry promoted the idea of guns for one’s safety, and began propagating the idea that gun ownership was a constitutional right.  The rise of the survivalist and militia movements in the 1980’s coincided with the introduction of assault rifles into gun marketplace. Thus, what had previously been focused on hunting and sport shooting increasingly became focused on producing and marketing guns whose primary purpose was to inflict injury on other human beings. At the same time these same kinds of guns began appearing on the lists produced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) as those weapons most frequently used in crimes (Diaz, 1999).

Gun Dealers

Working closely in concert with the manufacturers are the dealers who sell the guns. Diaz (1999) writes: “The retail sale of firearms in the United States is for all intents and purposes unregulated” (p. 36).  Anyone who is 21, has a place of business and does not have a criminal record can receive a federal license (under the Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968) to import and sell guns (BATFE, 2011). State regulations vary widely from state to state, but the vast majority of states (with a few notable exceptions such as New Jersey, Massachusetts, and New York) impose only minor additional restrictions. In order to purchase a gun in most states, a potential buyer simply needs to fill out an application and go through a cursory background check that only takes a few minutes. However, many sellers and buyers of guns can skirt even these minimal restrictions by doing business at public gun shows where most if not all of these restrictions are not applied (Diaz, 1999). Moreover, a majority of states allow ordinary citizens to carry concealed weapons in public and the recent trend has been toward increasingly permissive laws in this area (LCAV, 2008).

While all gun dealers are required by ATF to keep and provide records of sale, these data do not reveal the extensive illegal gun market being fed by the process of straw purchasing. Straw purchasing occurs when someone buys guns, usually in bulk on behalf of someone who has a criminal record and cannot pass the minimum requirements for a criminal background check.  The straw purchaser buys the guns legally and then turns them over (usually for a small fee) to the street dealer and the guns become untraceable. If a gun is used in a crime and traced back to the straw purchaser, he or she can simply say the gun was lost or stolen, and there are not further legal ramifications. (Bascunan & Pearce, 2007 ). Gun dealers can easily see what is going on when a person buys multiple guns, but can hide behind the cloak of legality, saying the buyer who entered his or her store bought the guns legally. As one former straw purchaser confided to a reporter, he could often visit gun shops a couple times a week buying multiple guns. Some gun dealers would even contact him when they had a new shipment of handguns (Thompson, 2010). Thus, for some gun dealers (but certainly not all) the illegal gun market has become another reliable stream of revenue.

Sources:

Bascunan, R. & Pearce, C. (2007). Enter the Babylon system: Unpacking gun culture from Samuel Colt to 50 Cent. Toronto: Random House Canada.

Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Fireams and Explosives (BATFE) (2011). Frequently asked questions: General questions. Retrieved on January 25, 2011 at http://www.atf.gov/firearms/faq/general.html
Diaz, T. (1999).Making a Killing: the Business of Guns in America. New York: the New Press.


Legal Community Against Violence (LCAV) (2008). Carrying concealed weapons. Regulating Guns in America: An evaluation and comparative analysis of Federal, State and selected local gun laws. January 25, 2011 at  http://www.lcav.org/content/carrying_concealed_weapons.pdf





Friday, August 26, 2011

Hurricance Arlene


Amidst tremors from an earthquake on Tuesday and the impending hurricane this weekend, Philadelphia's schools experienced another shock wave when now-former superintendent Arlene Ackerman went on the offensive against those who forced her out of her position with a $950,000 buy out. While I was never a huge Arlene Ackerman fan, I had great respect for her as an educator. Her Vision 2014 plan and her attempt to help struggle schools through her Renaissance Academy program was a move in the right direction. West Philadelphia High School, the school with which I am most familiar, has been designated a Promise Academy this coming year and along with a dynamic new principal, a brand new state of the art building and an infusion of funds, the school was slated to get the kind of support services common in more affluent districts and a huge help to the students of this school. Now some of those support services have been cut back due to state budget cuts, but still the school continues to move in the right direction. I give Dr. Ackerman much of the credit for that happening.

Dr.Ackerman was quoted several times as saying "I'm an educator.I'm not a politician." Having attended a community meeting with her and watched her in action. I would amend her saying: she is an educator, but not a leader. She did not know how to work collaboratively with people; she chose to make arbitrary and one-side decisions. She asked for community input, but never seriously considered it. And when it came to working with political leaders to advocate for the school budget, she embarrassed the mayor and refused to communicate on even the most basic level with people she needed and wanted as allies. In this sense she was her own worst enemy.

After she had been released and given a $950,000 severance package, she not only had the gall to take the money, but then she went on the radio and blamed politicians, the SRC and her staff for her failures, never once taking responsibility for her own actions. She even urged parents to pull their students out of the school district, the district of which she was the chief executive officer! Given the generosity of the school district and some anonymous donors, given her so-called concern for students, and given her own failures as a leader, I would have hoped for more humility and personal responsibility and a little less spite. Effective leaders know that no matter what happens ultimately they must take responsibility for the organizations they lead. It is okay to call out people at certain points, but always it must be done with the pointing the finger at oneself too. Sometimes leaders know when to keep their mouth shut; that obviously is not a skill she ever cultivated.


What is most sad is that Arlene Ackerman not only shows no remorse, but at least publicly shows little insight into the dynamics of her own demise. Yes, Philly is a political town. Yes, it is a tough place to be a leader. Yes, the challenge of turning around a struggling urban school district is great. She should have known that going into her job three years ago. Apparently she leaves with no greater insight than when she came in, and instead leaves like a storm seeking destruction along the way.

Though Arlene Ackerman made some positive contributions to the educational system in this city, in the end we are much better off without her. Now we must pick up the pieces and try to move on. Hopefully, we as a community, and our political and educational leaders can show more reflective insight and humility than the woman they just fired. As an educational visionary she was a reasonable choice for superintendent, but as a leader she was a disaster.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Social and Family Causes of Gun Violence

I continue with looking Faith-based responses to gun violence. In this section I discuss the underlying causes of the gun violence issue in the United States.

When one examines the causes of gun violence, one must think of the issue on at least four levels. First, we must acknowledge there are any number of social and familial issues that predispose a person to respond to his/her environment in an overtly violent manner. Second, there are institutions, in this case the gun manufacturing industry, whose vested interest lies in selling as many firearms as possible, and other institutions, such as the media that routinely glorifies violence in films, TV shows, videogames and the like. Third, there is an economic and political system that can either restrict or permit the proliferation of handguns in local communities. Finally, there is a culture of violence that propagates the linkage between firearms, freedom, individual rights patriotism, manhood, and sometimes even religion. While for purposes of discussion, one can delineate each of these levels, in reality they are deeply intertwined.
I begin by talking about the social and family related causes. In the coming weeks, I will address the other areas.
More than a social problem, injuries and deaths due to gun-related incidents are a public health concern that has reached epidemic proportions. While the media and public image of gun violence tends to focus on urban youths of color, the statistics portray a more diverse picture. And while the gun lobby seeks to persuade the public that we are safer with lax gun laws, the data tells a much different story.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) approximately 50,000 people in the U.S. die each year due to violence related injuries. Approximately 2/3 of these die by suicide and 36% die by homicide (CDC, 2011). In a 2007 study of data on violent deaths from 16 states, researchers noted that of a reported 167,319 deaths, 56.6% were suicide, 28% were homicides, 14% were of undetermined intent, and  7% were due to accidents. Homicide is the second overall leading cause of death for persons ages 15-24, the third leading cause of persons ages 10-14, and the leading cause of African Americans in those age categories (ages 10-24) (CDC, 2008b).
 Among the suicides, 51% of victims used a firearm to kill themselves. Males were three times more likely than females to commit suicide and whites more likely than non-whites to commit suicide. Adolescents were about half as likely to commit suicide as adult over the age of 30 (Karch, Dahlberg & Patel, 2010).
The data for homicides shows a similar pattern with some notable exceptions. Most victims of homicide (53%) were 18 years old or younger, and roughly a third (34.4%) of the victims were reportedly a friend or family member (this number could be much higher since 41% of the cases the relationship was unknown) while only 9.2% were reported to be a stranger or a rival. Males were 3.6 times more likely to be homicide victims than females. Non-Hispanic blacks were 52% of the homicides followed by Asians (10.5%) and Hispanics (7.25). Two-thirds of all homicides were committed with firearms, with men using guns 72% of the time (Karch, Dahlberg & Patel, 2010).
In the case of suicide, the majority of victims were either depressed and/or experiencing mental health problems. However, mental illness was not a major factor in homicides. Overwhelmingly homicides were precipitated by a crime or occurred while a crime was in progress. Over a third (37.5%) involved some sort of personal conflict, and 20% of homicides involved intimate partner violence ((Karch, Dahlberg & Patel, 2010).
The picture that emerges from this data is that the availability of guns is a significant risk factor for both homicide and suicide, and contrary to what pro-gun advocates believe, only a tiny percentage of guns are used against strangers, such as unknown intruders. In the overwhelming number of cases the victims of gun violence are personally known to their assailant (Hepburn & Hemenway, 2004).  Whites tend to commit more suicides while non-whites are more likely to commit homicide, but both use firearms a majority of the time. In both cases men are more likely than women to use guns in a violent injury. Younger people die by homicide, while older adults tend to violent deaths at their own hands. However, in both suicides and homicides the overwhelming method of injury is by firearms, and in the case of homicide those firearms are used most frequently used against a victim who has a close relationship with their killer. The perpetrators are either contending with serious mental health issues, or are involved in a lifestyle that is inherently dangerous or life-threatening.
Because of the magnitude of the violence particularly among young people, the CDC considers interpersonal violence to be a matter of public health. The risk factors contributing to violence include poverty, access to firearms, substance abuse, dysfunctional family life, difficulty in school, and being either a witness or victim of interpersonal. Prothrow-Stith (2008) and her colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health suggest that these factors do not act in isolation but lead to a complex of causes that have the overall effect of decreasing the social capital of families living in economically depressed areas, thus decreasing neighbor-to-neighbor trust, and creating an environment of fear and suspicion leading to violence.
When speaking of violence in urban communities, one must see that in poor communities people deal with a multiplicity of factors both in their families and personal lives related to poverty. In attempt to cope with the stress, young people resort to either high risk lifestyles (related to drugs and crime) or feel pressured by their peers. They attend schools that offer substandard education and often are centers of violence themselves, and come from homes and neighborhoods where conflict is handled in a violent matter. Firearms, both legally and illegally owned, are plentiful. Such an environment can be a formula for the proliferation of violence and often is. These statistics do not consider do not account for those young people who are injured and seek medical care for violence related injuries, which can lead to lasting physical disabilities as well as emotional scars, not to mention the economic cost of addressing these injuries (CDC, 2008a).
As staggering as these statistics are, for many U.S. citizens gun-related violence seems a way of life that is intrinsic to human nature. However, a cursory review of data from other developed nations reveals that the immense toll of life due to gun violence is a uniquely U.S. problem. For instance one study based on data from the United Nations reported that the U.S. had 15.22 deaths per 100,000 persons, whereas the rate in France was 6.35, Canada was 4.78, Norway was 4.39, Denmark was 2.6 and Germany was 1.57. Not only did the rate in the U.S. outstrip all European countries, but also countries such as Zimbabwe (4.75), Cost Rica (3.32), Philippines (9.46) and Northern Ireland (6.82) (Krug, Powell and Dahlberg, 1998). Thus while the epidemic of gun-related violence seems unmanageable, one must recognize that gun violence is a uniquely American problem and that based on the experiences of other countries, the high rate of gun violence is not inevitable
Sources:
Center for Disease Control (CDC) (2008a). Understanding youth violence: Fact Sheet. Atlanta, GA: Center for Disease Control & Prevention.
CDC (2008b). Youth violence: Facts at a glance. Atlanta: Center for Disease Control & Prevention.
CDC (2011). Violence Prevention: National Violent Death Reporting System. Retrieved January 21, 2011 at http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/NVDRS/index.html
Hepburn, L. & Hemenway, D. (2004). Firearm availability and homicide: A review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior: A Review Journal  9, 4-17-40.
Karch, D., Dahlberg, L. & Patel, N. (2010). Surveillance for violent death – national violent death reporting system, 16 states, 2007. Surveillance Summaries, 59 (SS04), 1-50. Retrieved January 21, 2011 at http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss5904a1.htm
Krug, E., Powell, K, & Dahlberg, L. (1998). Firearm-related deaths in the United States and 35 other high and upper middle income countries. International Journal of Epidemiology 27, 214-221.
Prothrow-Stith, D., Stuart, S., & Wright, L. (2008, September, 26). Violence prevention: A public health mandate. Presentation at Eastern University, Philadelphia, PA.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Gun Violence as a Spiritual Issue

During my recent sabbatical I researched and wrote a paper on Faith Based Responses to Gun Violence. In this research I studied the gun industry, the media, the NRA, the culture of guns and the way in which faith communities can and should respond. Over the next several weeks, I want to share the fruits of my research in hopes that a greater awareness of the hideous and twisted nature of the gun industry and the havoc it wreaks may move us to more concerted action. In light of the violent flash mobs in Philadelphia and elsewhere, and the riots in London, not to mention the random gun violence plaguing our streets, this discussion and the need for action is as urgent as ever.
In this first segment, I set out my case (that will be developed further) that at its heart the struggle over gun policy in this country is a deeply spiritual issue.



 On January 8, 2011 Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and several other people were shot by a lone gunman during a political town meeting in a Tucson, AZ shopping mall. The next day I posted a blog advocating for stricter laws on the sale and carrying of guns. In response to that blog a friend of mine who lives and works with young people in the Kensington section of North Philadelphia sent me a link a brief news article recounting a shooting in midday outside a local store (WPVI, 2011). My friend made no comment, but his point was clear. Even as the nation responded in shock and horror at what had happened to Rep. Giffords, literally thousands of shootings go unnoticed in urban communities all across the nation.
While much of the discussion following the Giffords incident focused on the polarizing political rhetoric which may have influenced the shooter, Jared Loughner, few Democrats and no Republicans dared to speak up for greater regulations on the sale of handguns. As Dick Polman noted: “The [gun] issue is off the national agenda because Democrats have been rendered mute by their terror of the gun lobby” (Polman, 2011).

The confusing response to the Tucson shootings highlights a continuing paradox in the ongoing debate on the place of firearms in American life. Numerous academic studies have documented that the proliferation of firearms increases the likelihood of those guns being used against innocent. National groups like the Brady Campaign for Gun Violence Prevention, and the Mayors Against Illegal Guns have sought to inform the public about the linkage between lax gun laws and death and injury by firearms. High profile shootings have occurred in surprising places like Columbine High School, Virginia Tech and Tucson. Even so polls show that the public remains deeply divided on the issue and the gun lobby continues to make advances in easing access to guns from local ordinances up to the Supreme Court.
Why is there an apparent disconnect between vigorous efforts to limit regulations on handgun sales and the voluminous data showing the danger the presence of firearms presents citizens? Why do gun violence prevention groups have continued difficulty convincing the American public and political leaders of the need to pass laws limiting and regulating the sale of handguns? How have the pro-gun advocates been so successful at dividing the American public on this life and death issue?

The answers to these questions lie in the effective way in which the gun industry and  its promoters have tapped into basic American values  and created a polarizing climate of fear and distrust whenever efforts are made to regulate the sale and usage of guns. While gun-related violence continues to afflict communities across the country, the gun industry uses effective marketing strategies and image manipulation to obfuscate the issue and continues to record substantial profits and exercise significant political influence.
Viewed through the lens of faith, the struggle over gun policy in this country is a deeply spiritual issue, reflecting what the apostle Paul called a battle against “principalities and powers" (Ephesians 6.12; Romans 8. 38). Even so the institutional church has been largely silent and inactive on this issue. However, Christians and people of other faith traditions have begun to challenge the gun industry, realizing they are uniquely equipped and called to work for common sense laws and policies regarding the sale and use of firearms.

Subsequent segments in this blog will attempt to show how this is true, and how Christians and other people of faith, can make a difference.

Sources:
Polman, D (2011, January 16). Talk about civility is fine, but where are the new calls for gun control? Philadelphia Inquirer, Section C, p. 1,6.July 5, 2010 at http://citypaper.net/print-article.php?aid-22345


WPVI-TV (2011, January 10). Three wounded by gunfire in Kensington. Retrieved 1/21/11 at http://abclocal.go.com/wpvi/story?section=news/crime&id=7889799




Saturday, August 06, 2011

Moving from They to We: Being Allies With Those Who Are Oppressed

"If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together."
I recently attended my 40th high school reunion. I saw and talked with people I literally had not seen in 40 years. It was a rich and wonderful experience that I will cherish for a long time.  As is generally the case at reunions, most of the conversation consisted in catching up on the details of people’s lives: Where do you live? What kind of work do you do? Married? Kids? However, in a few cases the conversations became more personal and substantive.

I grew up in a wealthy suburb of Minneapolis, and so not surprisingly many of my former classmates had gone into business or professional work and had become quite wealthy themselves in the process. Yet, I was struck by the number of people who spoke of using their position and wealth to benefit the “less fortunate.” One friend had retired in his early 50’s after a lucrative legal career and now is supporting a number of non-profits. Others left their careers to actually work for non-profits. Another left business to go into ministry. One person had started a non-profit even as she continued her work. I heard of others who had turned their business surplus into foundations giving money or things such as clothing or furniture to needy people. These were sincere, good-hearted faith-driven people who were trying to live out their convictions amidst their significant financial success.

As I listened there was a question that kept stirring within me as folks talked about their efforts to help “the poor.” There was something in the language that troubled me; it was all about what we are doing for them. There was an inherent divide between we who have and they who do not. I left those conversations pondering how to move from talking about they to we? In other words how do we breakdown the dichotomy that creates givers and receivers, haves and have-nots.

An unidentified Australian aboriginal activist was once quoted as saying: “If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.” What the poor and oppressed of the world need is not charity, but justice. They don’t need missionaries and do-gooders, they need allies.

Recently at the Pedagogy and Theater of the Oppressed Conference, I heard Dr. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, director of the Center for African American Studies at the University of Texas speak about “Seven Rules for Allies of the Oppressed”. I paraphrase them here for our consideration with my comments in brackets.

1.      Allies know it is not enough to be liberal; we must be radical enough to want to work to change the system. [As long as we seek to “help” others while maintaining our power and privilege, we perpetuate a capitalist system that has historically marginalized women, people of color, immigrants, and gays/lesbians. Charity is not enough, we need systemic change.]

2.      Be loud and crazy. [When women, people of color, or poor people speak out they are considered “hysterical,” ”threatening”, and “out of control.” Our position and privilege allows us the freedom to be loud and possibly heard.]

3.      Do not tell an oppressed person to be patient. [The poor and oppressed are always told to “wait,” but as Frederick Douglas said over 150 years ago, the powerful do not give up power willingly, it must be taken from them.]

4.      Recognize that racism, sexism and homophobia are structural. [The disparities that exist along racial, gender and orientation lines are built into the system, that’s why the system must be radically changed.]

5.       When called out about your racism, sexism, homophobia or other –isms, don’t cower in embarrassment, cry, try to cover, or accuse the other person of being unfair. Instead be grateful they took the time and had the courage to expose you. [This is a hard one for folks of privilege, but so true; I speak from experience as one who has been called out more than once.]

6.      Support alternative possibilities. [The rationale and strategies that created oppression will not resolve it; we need new paradigms.]

7.      Don’t work to make the world better for the oppressed. Instead work to create a world that we would want to live in with all others - a world that provides equality, dignity, humanity and justice for all people.

This week we saw the Congress and President pass legislation that further requires the poor of our country  to go without so the wealthy and corporations  can bear no burden. As  people of faith and conscience, we should be considering whose side are we on.

Will we continue to perpetuate a system that benefits the few at the expense of the many? 

Will we continue to perpetuate the myth that our system is fair and just, or will we choose to be allies with those that suffer?

Will we perpetuate the we-they divide, or will we see that our liberation is inextricably bound up with those who suffer poverty, discrimination, and oppression in our world?