Saturday, April 23, 2011

Resurrection: Neither Fast Nor Fair

For the last six months or so, I have been struggling with asthma. I woke up on a Sunday morning with a severe shortness of breath, which the next day was diagnosed as “mild persistent asthma.” I was given various medicines, which created a variety of side effects in other parts of my body, such as weakness, tingling, and sleeplessness. Moreover, the shortness of breath seemed to come and go at unexpected times, not lending itself to a clear cause-effect diagnosis. Along with the asthma, acute anxiety has sometimes surfaced, as either a cause or an effect of the asthma or both – I’m not sure. Just when I would think I was getting my health and emotions “under control,” something would happen to send me in a tailspin of anxiety and breathlessness again. I don’t know from day to day if I will feel better or worse, so that now I approach each new morning wondering how I will feel, and how much energy  and breath I will have that day.

Before this struggle began, I was a person who felt like his life was in control.  I had my health and when I faced a health challenge, I was usually able to muster the strength or resolve to “get through it” and feel better again. That strategy no longer works. As a result, at times this whole experience has done a number on my self-esteem and self-confidence, but it also has brought me a new appreciation of the grace that awaits one each day. I no longer struggle like I did back in November; the medicines I take seem to be keeping me in balance and I have a sense of normalcy again, but I certainly don’t take my health for granted like I did before.

As I have reflected on the one year anniversary of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and followed the efforts in Japan to respond to the tsunami and earthquake that occurred in that country, I have been reminded that it is not just my life, but all of life that is beyond our control. Like I did with my health, we can delude ourselves into thinking that we have things in hand, but in fact all of life is flux and change, and we don’t have a stop or reset button to bring things back to zero. Sometimes we must just ride the wave and see where it takes us.

As I have gone through my experience I have sustained myself with the thought that in the Spring I will feel better. Somehow the cycle from winter to spring mirrors our journey from pain through struggle to hope, from losing control to surrender to acceptance. That passage from Winter to Spring is also reflected in the passage through Lent, to Holy Week and to Easter.

Recently, I came a cross a poem by Mary Bernard that compares the passage from winter to spring to Resurrection. One message of this poem is that the passage to Spring does not erase or forget the struggle of Winter, just as the Resurrection of Jesus did not remove the scars of the cross from his body. That is why Jesus could say to Thomas, “Put your hands in the holes in my hands and side” (John 20.25). Though resurrected, Jesus still bore the marks of his suffering. That juxtaposition and paradox is instructive for us. Even as we enjoy grace, hope, life and love, those things come at a price that we bear and carry around with us.

In her poem, Mary Bernard describes the paradox of Resurrection (using the image of winter to spring) this way:

Long before this winter’s snow
I dreamt of this day’s sunny glow
For some fast way to get around
Its hurt and cold. I’ve found
If I had looked at what was there,
That things don’t follow fast or fair
That life goes on, and times do change
And grass does grow despite life’s pain.

Resurrection comes neither fast nor fair, but it comes. And as grass springs from the rock of suffering, so hope comes through the struggle. May those who struggle find strength and hope in this realization.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Taxes and Power

What do Warren Buffet, Alan Greenspan, Barack Obama and my father, a life long Republican, have in common? Normally this is a group that would have little they could agree on politically or economically. However, they all agree that in order to balance the national budget, one thing: we mus raise the taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Now they might quibble about the percentages and what areas of the budget should be cut, but all agree that the tax rate must be progressive and that those who earn more should pay more literally and proportionately in taxes. And all of them would probably pay higher taxes if such a decision was made.

When you are facing trillions of dollars in debt, one doesn’t have to be a genius to know the way you close the gap is to cut expenses and raise revenue. So why are the Republicans in Congress and Republicans in statehouses across the country, including my own state of Pennsylvania, so adamant about not raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations while making major cuts in education, health care, and social services for the poor? Why can they insist that teachers and other public employees must pay more for their benefits –what they call “their fair share” - (essentially cutting their income by making them pay more for those benefits), but not ask those who earn over $250,000 a year to pay more – i.e. their fair share? Why can they propose to make the middle class and poor go without, and yet allow the gap between haves and have-nots get wider and wider?

The argument goes that the by holding down taxes on the wealthy, this will spur economic growth by encouraging the wealthy and corporations to create jobs. The evidence has not born that out. We are currently in the worst recession since the 1930’s and the banks and the corporations have been show to be corrupt and predatory in their practices toward the middle class and homeowners, and yet Republicans in Congress refuse to turn the screws on those who have lined their pockets with PAC and lobbyist money.

Nearly 20 years ago investigative reporters Donald Bartlett and James Steele predicted the vanishing of the middle class because of the two tier tax structure that allows the wealthy and corporations to pay far less than their fair share in taxes. They have revisited that study and their predictions proven to be true. Their study entitled What Went Wrong  indicates that the corporate tax rate has declined from 49% in the 1950’s to 26% in 2010. But that doesn’t tell the whole story because after deductions, credits and other tax write-offs some of the largest corporations like GE and Exxon pay no U.S. taxes. This is not some liberal political rhetoric, but rather information reported on their corporate  statements to the SEC. Which means that the “small businesses” the Republicans keep saying they are trying to protect are probably paying a lot more than 26% so the big boys and the wealthy can get a “free card.”

It does no good to cry “foul” or talk about ethics or equity in this situation. Change will not come about by appealing to values or discussing different worldviews. This is simply an issue of power – who has the power to call the shots.  In Plato’s Republic Book I, Socrates encounters a young man named Thrasymachus whose idea of justice is that the wealthiest and most powerful men make the rules and whatever they say goes. In his mind that is justice. Thrasymachus is not concerned about being fair to the masses, he just wants to get in the seat of power so he can make the rules bend toward his self-interest. Socrates (unsuccessfully) tries to show him that such a short sighted approach will destroy the city of Athens. That doesn’t matter to Thrasymachus because all he cares about is  building his little kingdom.

We used to think that such things only happened in despotic nations ruled by wealthy strongmen surrounded by military power. Rulers like Amin (Uganda), Duvalier (Haiti) and Marcos (Philippines) bankrupted their countries and oppressed their poor masses, even as they amassed obscenely high concentrations of wealth. Well, add the United States to that list, as our political leaders, at the behest of the wealthy and the corporations, head us down that path. Amin, Duvalier, and Marcos were all overthrown by people’s revolutions, in Amin’s case violently. We are heading toward a point where nothing less than a revolution will bring sanity back to the way we distribute the wealth in this country. As Bartlett and Steele point out right now a significant mass of Americans have bought the line that “taxes” is a dirty word like “communism,” and continue to support policies that are not in their best interest. However, we are moving to ward what educator Paulo Freire calls an “untested feasibility” of needing a dramatic revolution not of morals or worldview, but of power.

Do we really want to go there?