Friday, August 24, 2012

President Obama – Return to “Hope and Change”

Like most of the folks who voted for then-Senator Obama to become president four years ago, I was sold on the promise of “hope and change.” While I have been politically aware and involved since my college days, I rarely had found a candidate who I could believe in and support like Barack Obama. He talked about bringing a change to government that would be more sensitive to the needs of the poor, and would move past the liberal-conservative debate. However, once in office faced with a huge financial crisis and surrounded by a group of former and present Wall Street bankers and financiers, Obama made some moves that both Democrats and Republicans supported (though now the latter disavow any part in it) to prop up the “banks too big to fail” while the gap between the haves and have-nots grew even widers. Along the way he proposed a revamped health care system, supported gay marriage, provided an avenue for Dream-ers to become legal residents, provided money for projects rebuilding infrastructure and sought to address the sagging public school system. While I have not always support the ways he went about these things, at least they have been on his radar.

Now that the Republicans have solidified their presidential candidate team with Romney and Ryan, there is no question that they have decided on a course of action that will benefit the wealthy and the corporations, deprive basic needs for the poor and indigent, remove regulations on banks and business, return to the flawed policy of primarily supporting carbon-based fuels, and generally run a government that will benefit the few at the expense of the many. Over the last four years, the Republican leadership under pressure from the Tea Party and big money have taken a no-compromise approach to government simply feeding the polarization that was there before 2008. In contrast the Democrats under Obama have sought to find a “middle ground” – either out of a commitment to consensus government or just plain spinelessness – I have never been really clear.

Well, Mr. President, its time to return to hope and change. There are many of us who still embrace your vision of a more inclusive, more just, more compassionate America. The issue for us is not more or less government, but what kind of government: a government that recognizes that poor people are citizens too, that wealthy people need to pay their fair share, that quality education and health care should be a right not a privilege, and that while business is an important part of our economy, government is more than simply about serving the desires of business at the expense of the general population. In a sense Mr. President, we want to hold you to your promises and to the vision that you presented four years ago.

In that way we don’t want you to spend your ad time and campaigning Romney/Ryan bashing, but rather presenting a vision of what you would and could do if given a second term.  Every week I get phone calls, emails and junk mail from the Democrats bashing the opposition; I’m sorry but that’s not what motivates me. Psychologists tell us that fear and anger are short term motivators, but hope and love last over a long time. The change needed to transform this country is long term, longer than your next 4 year term.  We are in a struggle for the future and soul of the country; more than that millions of lives are at stake when we talk about government initiatives in healthcare, poverty reduction, education and the like.

Like Reinhold Neibuhr I recognize that the work of government involves compromise and struggle, and that what government achieves will fall short of perfection. But like contemporary prophets such as Martin Luther King, and the Anabaptist peacemakers thru the centuries, I believe the role of people of faith is to call government, society and culture to a higher standard, even when I recognize it will fall short of reaching that standard. Mr. President, when you spoke of hope and change you pointed us to that higher ideal. I support your original vision – please return and you will have my active support. Continue to run negative ads and you will have my vote, but not much more.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The New Bottom Line

Now that Governor Romney has picked Rep. Paul Ryan as his VP running mate for November's election, the Republicans have made very clear that they are not on the side of restoring social services or redistributing wealth, but rather to serve the greed of the corporations, big banks, and the wealthy 1%. This video clearly lays out the reasons for the disparities and points in the direction of a movement that must occur. I encourage you to take the seven minutes it takes to watch this video, and consider how you might get involve in establishing a "new bottom line.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Colombian Reflections

I write this on my last night of two weeks (Aug 1-14) in Colombia with BuildaBridge and Eastern University Urban Studies students. While here in Bogota we have worked in collaboration with local community artists to run an arts camp for kids. Two of our members conducted a 3-day training for artists on the BuildaBridge Arts in Transformation model for over 50 local artists. A mural was painted on a site that had been the local trash heap. We also have visited community arts organizations in Bogota, and have been inspired and humbled by the dedication and creativity of those seeking to bring arts to kids in deprived communities. Throughout we have been partnering with a local Christian community development foundation, Communidad Vita. While we came to give our time and expertise, in many ways we have received as much or more than we have given.

Before the Mural

Completed Mural

For me this has been an eye-opening experience as to the power of the arts to teach life lessons and inspire hope in people. I spent the week assisting the drama instructor, Stevie Neale. Stevie is a gifted theater improv artist. Along with her Colombian counterpart, Johany Mora, I was able to see kids with no drama training begin to grasp the essentials of the acting craft. We literally performed street theater, using a busy street as our drama space, since none other space was available to us. Several times every afternoon, we would have to move our props out of the way of an oncoming vehicle. While it was frustrating and disruptive for those of us teaching, the kids took it in stride. This was their life, their reality. This street was their playground, and despite disruptions and distractions, they were able to learn and put on a simple play about helping one another in their neighborhood. At the end, the kids and adults thanked us for our work, and yet they had been the teachers in many ways.

The most frustrating and therefore humbling, thing for me was being an English speaker in a Spanish speaking country. My elementary school Spanish was hardly sufficient to effectively communicate with the kids I worked with, shop owners we visited, or friends we encountered. Throughout our time here, I have learned a number of Spanish expressions, but in the midst of trying, I experienced the mental and emotional fatigue that anyone must feel when being in a place where their first language is not spoken. While I was able to get by often with broken Spanish, hand gestures, and a friendly English-speaking passerby who would help translate, in the end that part of the trip was exhausting. Not being able to communicate on simple matters, not to mention complex thoughts, after a while wore me down. While I have always tried to be sensitive to people in the U.S. for whom English is not a first language, I come away from this trip with a much deeper appreciation for the challenges non-English speakers face in the U.S.. Furthermore, to those who want to press for “English only”, I suggest they go to another country for a few weeks, and see how easy it is to learn a language when you are just trying to get by.

I feel like I have gotten to know my colleagues and students much better over this time. When you spend two weeks with folks in such an intense period, you see each other much more clearly. This probably has been the most gratifying part of the trip. Moreover, I feel like I have made some friendships here in Bogota, which I hope can be nurtured and continued. I came to this country with an open mind, and I leave with a full heart. I am thankful for those who made the trip possible, and for the many people I encountered and the things I have learned. 

[All pictures used by permission of Nathan Corbitt and BuildaBridge]

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

What About the Thieves?

This past week and next (Aug 1-14) I am in Bogota, Colombia with a group of Urban Studies students from Eastern University working with the arts organization BuildaBridge conducting training for community artists and running an arts camp for children alongside of some of those local artists. We are working with a local Christian church and foundation that is seeking to do community development in a neighborhood called La Montana (the mountain), which literally sits on the side of a steep hill that lies between a middle class neighborhood below and an upper middle class neighborhood above. Unlike the neighborhoods on either side of it, La Montana has no pavement on its streets, no garbage pickup or other basic services. The houses mostly are poorly constructed and many tap into power lines illegally for any electricity they might have. In fact many of the people came to live in this neighborhood simply by taking up residence without any legal permission to do so, and so could be removed at any time.

One of the things we have heard repeatedly during our time here from people in the community and community workers is the problem of violence directed at children. One teacher told us that in neighborhoods like La Montana that are desperately poor, children are required by their parents to bring home some food or money to help support the family; when they fail to do so they are beaten. Young girls are raped by their fathers and step fathers, and drugs are a constant problem. As a result many of these children grow up to pursue a life of drugs and violence and the cycle continues.

Running thru La Montana is a very steep path from top to bottom. While it is not particularly long, one can imagine at certain times of day or night, it might not be particularly safe for outsiders to the neighborhood without an escort. All of this has led me to reconsider the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan, told by Jesus in Luke 10. The point of the story is to illustrate the qualities and actions of a “good neighbor” and focuses on the selfless action of a Samaritan who goes out his way to help a man robbed and beaten by thieves. The actions of the Samaritan are contrasted with the callous disregard of a priest and a Levite who pass by without helping even though they see the man on the side of the road. However, I have never heard or read any comment on the thieves in this story, even by Jesus.

One of the contributions liberation theology makes to our understanding of how to read and interpret the Bible is the importance of reading the Scriptures in context not only of its time, but also in the time and place of the reader. Working in La Montana, a community of “thieves” and other illegal persons, causes me to ask “what about the thieves?” Like the path in La Montana, the road from Jericho to Jerusalem on which the story of the Good Samaritan occurred, was a steep and windy road with many places for thieves to lie in wait for their victims. For all we know it could have been a place where people not allowed into either Jerusalem or Jericho eked out an existence in the caves and rocks of that area. Perhaps that road was “home” to a number of people who survived by way of any means possible.

So what about the thieves? Why were they on the side of the road and what led them there? What were their lives like before this incident that they would be driven to a life of violence and anti-social behavior? What beatings, rapes and suffering had they endured at the hands of others? How had their worldview been shaped by desperate circumstances?

All commentators on this story, including Jesus, treat the thieves as an afterthought, yet this week I find myself moving among thieves and potential thieves who are 5-10 years old who are simply trying to survive in a world that has treated them as an afterthought. Through the arts camp we are attempting to teach basic art skills (music, dance, sculpture, theater, and painting), and essential life skills, and to plant seeds of hope that can be further watered and nurtured by local artists and community workers with whom we are working in an effort to direct the lives of these little “thieves” in other directions.

However, the issue is not just Colombian. In the U.S. we have criminalized nearly 12 million undocumented migrants to the U.S. who like the kids of La Montana are just trying to survive. The rhetoric around illegal immigration would make one think the so called “illegals” are just parasites and scabs on our economy. However anyone who has taken the time to learn the story of what it takes for people simply to get into the United States would know that scabs and parasites don’t risk their lives multiple times in multiple ways just to become a hanger-on. They don’t work for less than minimum wage and live in tight and crowded quarters just to “steal” someone else’s opportunity.

Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen introduced me to the theological insight that all persons are both sinners and sinned against. Traditional Christianity has tended to focus on the former and call people to confession, repentance and a change of lifestyle. However, what is often overlooked is that the “sins” that we and others often commit are a response to sins committed against us. For instance, we know that most people, who abuse children, were abused as children themselves. Their “sins”  reflect the fact they were sinned against when they were younger. I wonder about the thieves in the story of the Good Samaritan, could it be their actions on that day were a response and result to the abuse and degradation they themselves had and were suffering?

Of course we cannot know, but it’s a thought that causes me to look at this familiar story in an entirely different light, and to consider again that the categories we often put people in dehumanize and objectify them in ways that make them an afterthought. Were I in the crowd the day Jesus told this story, I would want to say “Jesus, I get your point about the Good Samaritan and all, but what about the thieves? How should we regard them? Why were they there and how has sin been inflicted such pain and suffering on them that they could do such a heinous thing to innocent traveler? Of course, we can’t really know, but after this week, I will not be able to read that story without considering the thieves as real people with real stories too.

[All pictures used by permission of Nathan Corbitt and BuildaBridge]

The Fallacy of the Gun Lobby Rhetoric - Again

After the shooting in the Aurora, CO movie theater I wrote all my state and national legislators urging them to pass laws to restrict the sale of military issue weapons, and to limit the number of weapons an individual could purchase. On the day I learned of the shooting in the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, I received a reply from Rep. Pat Meehan, my representative in Congress indicating (in response to my earlier letter) that he agreed with Pres. Obama (one of the few times he ever has) who advocates strengthening the enforcement of existing laws. The fallacy of this position is that the weapons used in these and all the other mass shootings over the last few years (Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, and Tucson) were committed with guns purchased legally.

Despite the rhetoric as to his being a threat to the gun lobby, Pres. Obama has done more to weaken gun laws than his NRA member predecessor George W. Bush. He allowed the assault weapons ban to expire and signed legislation allowing guns to be carried in National Parks. He has not put more teeth into the data base that checks on those who seek to purchase guns, even provisions regarding mental health on which has spoken but not acted. He has not challenged the Tiahrt Amendment, nor has he in any way challenged the gun lobby or the NRA or the gun industry to come up with real solutions to the proliferation of guns into the hands of people such as those who committed these and other heinous crimes. Furthermore, neither Congress nor most of state legislatures have done anything to limit the number of handguns or other weaponry that a person can buy nor given police proactive tools ( such as a law requiring lost and stolen guns to be reported).

The problem that these recent shootings highlight (yet again) is it that it is the laws themselves that are contributing to the problem. When non-military and non-law enforcement people such as the Aurora killer can collect an arsenal not only of guns but other explosive devices legally, the problem is not enforcement, it is the law itself. When para-military groups espousing white supremacist hatred can roam freely and gather weaponry, the problem is the law.

However, when these common sense solutions don’t even get a hearing, the problem is not just the law; it is a system of government that allows powerful lobbies with deep pockets like the NRA to buy silence and inaction from representatives. It is a system that has a Supreme Court that renders a decision like Citizens United which allows money to dictate who gets heard in Congress and who does not. It is a system that so broadly interprets the Second Amendment that owning a gun is a right without responsibility or just cause.

The problem is also us that we aren’t so outraged that we demand to be heard and that we are always reacting rather than seeking to disrupt this system that is so corrupt and so unresponsive to the real problems people face (here I refer not only to guns but also so much more), because it is only serving the needs of an elite few. I am not sure at this point what that disruption looks like, but it seems that is time for an Occupy Washington, and Occupy (fill in your state capitol), where we take up residence in the legislative halls and streets that supposedly belong to the people and demand action that our elites are not willing to take.