Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Pacifist Response to Libya

Monday night (March 28) Pres. Obama addressed the nation explaining his reasons for ordering military action to enforce a “No Fly Zone” in Libya. Essentially, he said that (1) he wanted to prevent the slaughter of innocent Libyan citizens by Libyan government forces and (2) that taking that action was in “our national interest.” While he did not spell out what those interests were, it’s pretty certain that a major factor in the decision had to do with the fact that Libya pumps out a lot of oil.

A few days earlier I was indirectly challenged by two people (a close friend who is clearly states he is not a pacifist, and a former student who is considering joining the Navy) to offer a pacifist response to the current situation in Libya; so here it is.

The root of the word “pacifism” is the Latin word “pace” or peace. In Biblical Hebrew the word for peace is “shalom,” which is a robust word not only meaning the absence of  conflict, but also the restoration of people to each other and to the creation. Shalom is celebrated in the passage from Isaiah where  the prophet writes:

            The wolf will live with the lamb
            The leopard will lied dies with the goat
            The calf and the lion and the yearling together
            And a little child will lead them (Isaiah 11.6)

Shalom is a picture of former adversaries living in harmony and trust, devoid of hatred or fear. As a pacifist I yearn for and work toward this vision of the world, realizing we might not get there fully, but we can get closer than we currently are.

Sam Keen, philosopher and author of Fire in the Belly, comes close to my position on war when he writes: “It would be Utopian to wish that men should no longer kill one another … But a much sounder Utopia is that which insists that murder no longer be legitimized” (p. 114). Applied to Libya it means, yes it may have been necessary to send war planes to bomb military sites and advancing armies in Libya in order to save lives, but let’s not try to legitimize or glorify the fact that we had to do it. The foot soldiers in Qadaffi’s army are as blindly “innocent” as the citizens who they threatened and the rebels fighting against Qaddafi. In war there are no winners.

More importantly we need to look at how we got in a position where it was “necessary” for us to invade Libya. Qaddafi has been in power for 40 years. A little less than 40 years ago in the mid-1970’s the United States faced an oil shortage which caused us to ration gas and wait in long lines to fuel our cars. Then-President Jimmy Carter implored the nation to turn down their thermostats, wear sweaters, drive fuel efficient cars and generally change our lifestyles. We didn’t listen, ridiculed Carter, started driving SUVs, chewed up more and more farmland for suburban neighborhoods and generally ignored the early warning the 1970’s gas crisis gave us. Since then we have had the hostage crises in Iran, two Iraq wars, a war in Afghanistan, ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, various crises in Lebanon, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern countries; and now Libya. Moreover, Colonel Qaddafi didn’t become a tyrant 10 days ago; he’s been a tyrant for 40 years; President Obama admitted as much the other night. So what is the common denominator connecting all of these events over the last 40 years? Our dependence on oil. President Carter was right then and is still right today.

I have no objection to a standing military that helps earthquake victims in Haiti or ferries victims of Hurricane Katrina to safety, or is currently helping the Japanese people cope with their recent earthquake. I don’t even object to the military trying to stop innocent slaughter in places like Bosnia in the 1990’s or Libya today. But when we must continually turn to military solutions, let us see these incursions for what they are: a tragic failure of we who are the wealthy of the world to curb our voracious lifestyles. This invasion would not have been "necessary" were it not for the oil. Qaddafi would have been a minor desert warlord were it not for the oil. He would not have been tacitly supported as the world looked the other way, had we been working to change our lifestyles so that we were not so oil-dependent.

In 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor forsook his pacifist stance to take part in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler. The plot failed, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned, and was executed for his crime days before the Germans surrendered to the Allies. However as theologian Walter Wink notes Bonhoeffer never considered his participation in the plot a “justifiable action” but rather a sin, and he threw himself on the mercy of God for what he had done. At the time he saw no other option, but he never sought to justify it.

President Obama and the NATO forces are to be commended for the limited role our military has played in the Libyan situation. However, seen in the larger context of our voracious consumptive American lifestyle, and the “interests” we protect to maintain that lifestyle can not be justified. Our continual dependence on carbon based fuels to support our lifestyle continues to lead to wars, destroys the environment, drains resources for addressing desperate needs in our own country, and makes all the world’s people vulnerable to tyrants whose land happens to be sitting over an oil well.

Libya should cause us to heed the call Pres. Carter gave us nearly 40 years ago. The world can not afford us; we can not afford ourselves. A world beyond war, a taste of shalom, can only happen as we not only stop tyrants like Colonel Qadaffi, but also look at ourselves, and ask how are we willing to change so that war does not become necessary to protect our “interests?”

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Fairness in Taxation Bill

Rep Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) has introduced the Fairness in Taxation bill, which seeks to have the wealthy pay their share in addressing the current budget problem. What follows is a letter to my Congressman, Rep Pat Meehan, asking him to support this proposed bill. I share it as an example others might want to send to their Representatives. As I suggest in my letter, why must the budget be balanced on the backs of the poor and the wealthy get off scott free?

Dear Rep Meehan,

I am writing to ask that you support the Fairness in Taxation Act that has been introduced by Rep. Jan Schakowlsy of Illinois. While you have supported the effort to present a balanced budget, your efforts thus far have focused on cutting funds designated for health care, education, and other social programs. At the same time you have opposed any efforts to increase revenues through targeted tax hikes on the wealthiest American. In essence that strategy is asking the most socially and economically vulnerable citizens to make sacrifices to balance the federal budget, while not asking the wealthiest Americans to do the same.

The Fairness in Taxation Act would correct this injustice and inequity by asking wealthy Americans to pay their fair share. The bill would establish new tax brackets for incomes starting at $1 million up to a $1 billion bracket. The new brackets would be:
  • $1-10 million: 45%
  • $10-20 million: 46%
  • $20-100 million: 47%
  • $100 million to $1 billion: 48%
  • $1 billion and over: 49%
The bill would also tax capital gains and dividend income as ordinary income for those taxpayers with income over $1 million. If enacted in 2011, the Fairness in Taxation Act would raise more than $78 billion.

While I know support of this bill would ask you to break with your Republican party colleagues, I believe that you know in your heart that this is fair and just. The terrible debt we are facing right now is largely due to the government’s efforts to compensate for the mistakes and misdeeds of the large financial institutions in this country. They received a bailout that both Pres. Bush and Pres. Obama supported, as did both parties. Now you seek to correct the deficit that has resulted. As the Scriptures say: Those to whom much is given, much is required. This should apply to tax laws as well.

Please support this bill and allow fairness to rule our economic judgments, not the PAC money or lobbyist pressures. Poor people have no lobbyists. People like you and me must be their advocates. Please have the courage to support The Fairness in Taxation Act.

Drick Boyd

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Barack Obama, Guns and People of Faith

This past week Pres. Barack Obama delivered a speech in Arizona in which he proposed that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System be strengthened so as to deny known felons the opportunity to purchase guns. Groups like Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Ceasefire Pennsylvania came out praising the president for calling for this legislation. The irony is that the law already exists; it is just that some states and local jurisdictions don’t abide by the law and faithfully provide the data that is needed. The problem is not the lack of law, but the lack of enforcement. You can bet that those states that have loose gun control laws are also those states that don’t cooperate with this federal law either. Apparently, for the gun lobby any law that might restrict the right of someone, even someone with a history of violent crime, is too much “regulation.” 

If there was any doubt about how far the gun lobby will go to fight any and all gun regulations, following his speech, Pres. Obama invited leaders of the NRA to meet with members of his Justice Department to discuss gun legislation they could agree on. NRA Executive VP Wayne LaPierre rejected the invitation saying that Obama was only using a “political maneuver” designed to “take away our Second Amendment rights.” However, as Obama pointed out in his speech, his administration has expanded the rights of gun owners, and he now supports the Supreme Court’s specious interpretation of the Second Amendment.  Moreover he waited two years before filling the directorship of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF),  and did not extend the assault weapons ban. Barack has been the best friend the NRA has ever had, Republican or Democrat. However, as far as La Pierre and the NRA is concerned, any gun law apparently is a bad law, even though they apparently have Obama eating out of their hands. 

Recently, I made a presentation on the gun lobby at a conference. In the context of that presentation, I referred to a comment made by James Carville, Bill Clinton’s political advisor in the 1990’s. In 1993 then Pres. Clinton signed the Brady Bill, establishing the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (that Obama says we now must enforce), and pushed through the Assault Weapons Ban (which Obama let expire). In the 1994 midterm elections, the Democrats took a beating at the polls much like they did this past year. Carville attributed that defeat in part to Clinton’s support of these two significant pieces of gun control legislation. Ever since that time Democrats have been running scared of the NRA and the gun lobby, backing away from any efforts to enact common sense gun legislation such as requiring more extensive background checks that would include things such as mental health records, and repealing the Tiahrt Amendment a bill that exempts the BATF from releasing data on the gun shops that are the source of the most guns used in crime. By his tepid call to ask states to follow the laws that already exist, Obama and his Democratic cohorts continue in their timid inaction on gun legislation. (To read the full story see Dennis Henigan's book, Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths That Paralyze American Gun Policy).

What the Obama and the rest of the Democrats fail to grasp is that any policy of conciliation with the ultra conservatives is fruitless. For the conservatives is no compromise, only hard ball. The gun lobby is not satisfied with the status quo, they are pushing hard for legislation that would allow guns to be carried onto college campuses and on public transportation, and laws that would release the ban on all efforts to regulate the sale of guns of any size or firepower. Only by being as hard nosed and persistent as the gun lobby can those of us who seek to limit the sale of handguns (whose only purpose is to kill and injure other people), hope to see  significant changes need in gun control legislation to be enacted.

Comedian John Stewart has often made fun of the Democrats for being “wimps” on the issues they say are important to them. They have no spine to speak up for strong legislation whether it deals with health care or gun legislation. The truth be told, some of these “wimpish”  Democrats are probably as much in the pocket of the gun lobby as their conservative counterparts. Ironically, Gabrielle Giffords was one of those pro-gun Democrats; look where it got her.

In my presentation, I argued that the only effective response to the insane gun-mania and power of the gun industry and gun lobby is a grass roots movement. Christians and other faith groups can and must play a part in developing that movement.  Just as the gun lobby speaks of the values that support the right to own and use a gun, so too people of faith deal in the realm of values, but only those that speak to the need for peace and harmony among people. While we may not have the money the gun lobby can throw around ($2.1 million int he 2010 elections alone), we can galvanize people to act with their voice and their vote. This is why grassroots, faith based groups like Heeding God’s Call are essential to the gun violence prevention movement. If we wait for our political leaders to act,  even our supposed progressive president, we will be waiting a very long time.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Madison and Why Unions Matter

I have never been particularly strongly for or against unions. I knew that they had played an important role in creating a more humane workplace – 40 hour work week, child labor laws, work safety standards, Social Security, work benefits, and so on  - but just had not considered why a strong union presence in the economy was so important today. I was also aware of some of the ways unions had abused their power in the mid-twentieth century by excluding racial minorities in the early. I also remembered that the Teamsters had been used by California growers as thugs trying to intimidate the Farmworkers in the 1960’s and 1970’s. So I knew unions served a purpose, but I also knew they were not made up of angels.

Then the Miracle of Madison occurred, when Wisconsin governor Scott Walker not only sought to reduce the benefits paid to public employee unions, but also wanted to take away their bargaining rights to advocate for themselves. Scott Walker found out that his "mandate" was not as strong as he had imagined. The people have stood up to the governor for three weeks now, and the power of their movement grows each week. As I said in my last blog posting, to take away people’s bargaining rights is to rob them of the very tools of democracy. 

These events have gotten me thinking about what happens when unions aren't allowed to operate. I have been reminded of how union jobs in places like Philadelphia were moved to the South and then to Mexico. Now in the Maquiladora area around Juarez, Mexico (just across the river from El Paso, TX), people work for $5-15/day in unsanitary and unsafe conditions for major corporations trying to escape having to pay living wages and benefits, and other work-related items that we in this country take for granted. There are no unions in Juarez and the conditions are not only horrible, they are patently inhumane. All in the name of profit and capitalism. 

This past weekend I was in Madison, WI and marched around the capital with school teachers, firefighters, Teamsters, grandmothers, elementary school kids, and representatives from just about every other slice of humanity currently living in Wisconsin. I happened to be there when filmmaker Michael Moore showed up and delivered an incredible speech putting the Madison conflict in the context of a larger class war. His Major point was that Wisconsin, like the United States is not broke; it’s just that a very few millionaires and billionaires are awash in money, while the rest of the population can’t pay their mortgages, are taking pay cuts, and being told that their benefits are being cut. The problem is not a lack of money, but a need for redistribution of the wealth in this nation.

You can watch Moore’s speech here or read it here. He was clear, uncompromising and to the point.

What is happening in Madison is only the tip of the iceberg. As Moore and other speakers said that day, this is only the beginning of a long struggle to return some sanity and balance to economic power in this country (and I would add around the world). The scenario being played out in Wisconsin is being repeated in Ohio, Indiana and probably many other states. Unions will play a vital role in this struggle, not only in offering support (groups like the Teamsters, firefighters and police were not affected by the governor’s proposals but have been visibly present in solidarity), but also in their vast experience in bringing folks together to stand up to the corporate and political leaders who would seek to steal their right to self-determination and silence the voice of everyday folks.

I see now why unions matter and expect that I will learn much more in the months and years ahead.