Monthly Archives: December 2009

Weighing Our Options

In the wake of another failed attempt to blow up an airliner, there has been a cacophony of voices, many arguing for restrictions on racial profiling to be lifted. Take my own representative in Congress, Pete King, now top dog on the House Homeland Security Committee (now there’s a scary thought). He’s been doing the rounds this week (CNN, MSNBC, Meet the Press, etc.) to capitalize on this near tragedy in his usual tasteless fashion. “If you’re looking for the IRA,” he says, “you go to Irish bars and Catholic churches; if you’re looking for the Mafia, you go to Little Italy; if you’re looking for the Ku Klux Klan, you don’t go to Harlem.” Well, Mr. King, the great Archibald Bunker could not have put it better. No one could accuse either of you of compounding ignorance with inaudibility.

Racial profiling seems like an easy solution, but it’s exactly the kind of thing we shouldn’t do. Instead of our usual outraged, knee-jerk hysteria, rejoicing in another opportunity to fling more of our civil liberties to the wind, we should weigh our choices carefully.

First, Jesus teaches us that “in everything do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” As Christians we should stand up for those who are the victims of racial profiling. Why? Let’s remind ourselves of the words of Martin Niemoller, who was a pastor during Hitler’s rise to power. Like many clergymen, he at first supported Hitler because of the German leader’s firm anti-Communist stance. But when Nazism began to deify the state, Niemoller turned against Hitler and actively opposed him. For this he was arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps. After the war, he had this to say. The words may sound familiar:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I realize that is not enough for some Christians, so here are a few other practical reasons:

Second, terrorist recruiters would like nothing more than to have us start rounding up more and more Muslims because they are Muslims; it proves to them that we truly are the enemies of Islam.

Third, profiling based on race, ethnicity or religion would not be effective. Why not? Read yesterday’s exchange between former Sec’y of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and NPR’s Robert Siegel:

SIEGEL: How should the U.S. reconcile reasonable, ethical restraints on profiling with some obvious facts that this sort of thing has been done by Muslim men, typically, and also of a certain age. One could focus pretty heavily on Muslim men under 40 and come up with lots of the people who are posing threats.

CHERTOFF: Actually Robert, I’m going to argue that this case illustrates the danger and the foolishness of profiling because people’s conception of what a potential terrorist looks like often doesn’t match reality. In this case we had a Nigerian, for example, not a person from the Middle East or from South Asia. If you look at the airline plot of 2006, two of the plotters were a married couple that were going to get on a plane with a young baby. The terrorists understand that the more they vary the kind of operative they use, the more likely they’re going to be able to exploit prejudices if we allow those prejudices to guide the way we conduct our investigation.

SIEGEL: Your objection to profiling is not just as an ethical matter, it’s a point of efficacy also. You’re saying it doesn’t work.

CHERTOFF: I think it’s not only problematic from civil rights’ standpoint, but frankly, I think it winds up not being terribly effective.

I’m glad he footnoted the civil rights’ issue as well as the pragmatic one. They are both important. Chertoff was on NPR to promote the use of body scanners in airports. Incidentally, he did admit to being a paid “consultant” for several firms that manufacture such scanners, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Of course, such scanners would be a boon to security. The ethical and privacy issues, however, are labyrinthine.

Call me a cynic, but the lapses in security surrounding the recent bomb attempt are so bizarre, I can’t help wondering if the whole incident weren’t somehow a coordinated effort on the part of our government to sell the idea of body scanning to a frightened American public. Usually, I’m one who tends to poo-poo conspiracy theories; if there’s any conspiracy afoot it’s usually one of incompetence. Our government is rarely coordinated enough to organize conspiracies; it’s more like a loose confederation of warring tribes. However, the older I get, the less I trust my own government, I’m sad to say. So my suspicion stands. A few years from now, someone will probably come out with a book about it, but by then the American public will be so desensitized to having their bodies ogled by security personnel, they won’t care. For 2010 I suggest we all start hitting the gym.

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Vested Interests

In his first play Widowers’ Houses (1892) Bernard Shaw presents us with the character of Harry Trench, an idealistic young medical student who falls in love with Blanche Sartorius, the spoiled daughter of a real estate tycoon. All goes well with their engagement until Trench discovers that Mr. Sartorius is a notorious slumlord who makes his fortune off the misery of the poor. Morally outraged, the young doctor insists that he and his bride-to-be will refuse her father’s help and live on Trench’s own modest seven hundred a year. Accustomed to a more lavish lifestyle, Blanche protests and calls off the engagement.

A more conventional Victorian play might have ended there, with the hero choosing the moral high ground over true love, or else with the couple escaping together and striking out on their own in a respectable middle-class manner. But at this point Shaw’s play is only half over, as his characters are about to be ground through the kind of Mephistophelian motive machinery that only exists in real life.

In his daughter’s defense, the real estate magnate takes it upon himself to acquaint his future son-in-law with the facts of life: that slumlording is a necessary evil, without which the poor would be on the streets, and worse yet, that Trench’s own inherited income comes from an old mortgage on one of Sartorius’ substandard tenements. Checkmate.

Part of a collection the playwright later entitled Plays Pleasant & Unpleasant, Widowers’ Houses is an “unpleasant” play since it depicts a hero who, once he has faced his own complicity in grinding the poor and the option of losing his income, can only shrug and accept the way of the world. After all, he says, “A man must live.” His ultimately marrying the slumlord’s daughter then becomes, symbolically, not just a romantic union, but one of socio-economic collusion between the rich and middle class. As Shaw himself states in the play’s preface:

“Here we are confronted not only with the comedy and tragedy of individual character and destiny, but with the social horrors which arise from the fact that the average homebred Englishman, however honorable and good-natured he may be in his private capacity, is, as a citizen, a wretched creature who whilst clamoring for a gratuitous millennium, will shut his eyes to the most villainous abuses if the remedy threatens to add another penny in the pound rates and taxes which he has to be half cheated, half coerced into paying.”

As a socialist and an atheist, Shaw was wrong about many things, from Jesus Christ to Stalin, and many of his plays seem dated by today’s standards. But this first play remains as shocking and distasteful as the day it was written– shocking and distasteful, that is, because it is only too true. The world has changed a lot in twelve decades. But some things never do, especially in economics.

I bring this deeply flawed, little-known and seldom-seen play to our attention not because it is Shaw’s best play (it’s far from that), but because its indictment of British society (specifically, the exploitation of the working class by the middle and upper classes) still brings a sharp sting to us here in America. At least, it should.

We whine about the price of a cup of coffee, not pausing to consider whether the poor soul who picked the beans was paid a fair wage (or any wage at all). We check out at Walmart, our cart laden with bargains, blissfully unaware of the high cost of our discount culture. In the words of President William McKinley, “Cheap merchandise means cheap men.” Someone pays for that bargain, and if not us, then who? Ask little Rosita in Honduras or Chandran in Bangalore.

“And sure, everyone ought to have adequate health care; just don’t raise my taxes.” The average American will put up with the worst villainies, chicaneries, pettifoggeries, and corruption from his elected officials, provided they promise not to raise his taxes. And the church? The American church has drunk so much Kool-Aid we can no longer recognize the gospel when it is presented to us, but call it Bolshevism. If we do not see, it is because vested interest blinds our eyes.

Cheap, cheap, cheap. Now we are fighting two wars to insure that cheap oil continues to flow into our factories and gas tanks. But then, all this is nothing new. American prosperity has always been borne on the backs of slaves. It is the prerogative of empire.

What will we say when we stand before Him? I shudder.

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Another Close Call

Looks like Vatican police go through the same security training as the White House Secret Service. Last night, while processing down the aisle of St. Peter’s, Pope Benedict was tackled by a mentally ill woman in a red hooded sweatshirt.

After successfully hopping the barricade, the woman headed straight for the Pontiff and, grabbing the sacred vestments, pulled him to the ground as security guards attempted to neutralize her. The Holy Father seemed shaken but unharmed and continued the service. News reports claimed the Pontiff “popped back up,” but let’s be realistic. Nobody pops up at 82. Actually, he lay there for a few moments before being helped to his feet, as terrified onlookers held their breath.

Ironically, at last year’s Christmas midnight mass at the Vatican, a similar incident occurred. A woman in a red hooded sweatshirt managed to hop the barricade but she was tackled by security before she could reach the Pope. Hmm. Could it be the same woman? If not, it must be some cult that wears red hoods and believes in leveling clergy. (Actually, Vatican police confirmed today that it was the same person, an Italian-Swiss mental patient who comes to Rome each year to attend the mass and evidently to horizontalize the Holy Father.)

Vatican officials said today that it is hard to guarantee the Pope “100% security.” The faithful who flock there each Christmas want to be close to him. Granted. But how hard is it to spot someone in a red hooded sweatshirt? One would think such a sophisticated disguise would not be difficult to detect. After last year’s bravura performance, why was she allowed within 50 feet of the Holy See? Apparently, Vatican security is notoriously lenient, as one would expect of any benevolent institution. But a French cardinal, who was not so lucky, broke a hip in this year’s fracas. Italy’s Prime Minister was also attacked recently, breaking his nose and two teeth.

One wonders if the woman, exhibiting such tenacity of purpose, had ambitions of starring in some new reality series. As one mentally ill person I know said of the incident, “It’s people like her that give us a bad name.” We hope she gets the treatment she needs. We also hope the Pope’s security force, which include the centuries-old Schweizergarde as well as the more daunting Vatican and Italian police, will take a lesson from the White House and inspect its guests more carefully.

Security is an issue always in the news these days; it seems to have taken all of us hostage, not to mention our governments and constitutions. Whether it be an activist “detained” without charges in the name of “national security,” or a journalist bullied at a border crossing, we’ve almost come to accept the officiousness of our over-zealous security forces and our subsequent loss of freedom as a fact of life. That is why it is so ironic to see such lax incompetence toward a head of state, such as the Pope, Berlusconi, and our own President.

We’re relieved His Holiness was unhurt, and we wish Cardinal Etchegaray (87) a speeding recovery. Viva Il Papa!

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Promises, Promises: On Presidential Memory Loss

Wow. And I thought I had a bad memory. Yesterday, Mr. Obama further distanced himself from supporters of the public insurance option by insisting that he had never promised such an option would be included in any reform.

Speaking to the Washington Post, he said, “…I didn’t campaign on a public option. I think it is a good idea, but as I said in that speech on September 9th, it’s just one small element of a broader reform effort.”

Actually, Mr. President, you did. In fact, during your campaign you promised on your website: “…Any American will have the opportunity to enroll in [a] new public plan.” Okay, so politicians always make promises they don’t keep. So what else is new? But only last summer, during one of his weekly addresses, he stated emphatically:

“That’s why any plan I sign must include an insurance exchange — a one-stop shopping marketplace where you can compare the benefits, costs and track records of a variety of plans, including a public option to increase competition and keep insurance companies honest, and choose what’s best for your family.”

One small memory loss for man; one giant loss for America. (You can see the speech here.)

Oops. This President must have one of the shortest political memories in history. Or perhaps he thinks we do. I don’t like to embarrass politicians needlessly. They certainly don’t require my assistance to do that. And frankly, none of this should come as a surprise. But I do feel angry for the sake of those who pinned such hopes on Mr. Obama as an agent of change. (What change is that, except of course maybe a change of mind?) One party has used my fellow evangelicals to further its ends; another has used the poor and downtrodden. Nothing sacred. It just goes to prove, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Or as controversial historian Howard Zinn stated on Moyers a few weeks ago:

“Whenever the government has done anything to bring about change, it’s done so only because it’s been pushed and prodded by social movements, by ordinary people organizing…. Traditional history creates passivity because… it makes you think that all you have to do is go to the polls every four years and elect somebody who’s going to do the trick for you.”

Damn straight.

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U.S. Missiles Strike S. Yemen

Memo: To the Oval Office Staff.
Please file this one under “J” for “Just Doesn’t Get It.”

ABC News reports that Nobel Peace Prize winner Barak Obama ordered cruise missile strikes against two “suspected terrorist targets” in South Yemen last Thursday.

Pardon me, but if you’re going to use cruise missiles, shouldn’t they be “confirmed terrorist targets”? As it happens, reports claim that the real target of the attacks, Al-Qaeda leader Qasim al Rim, was not among the dead, which included 49 civilians, among whom were 23 women and 17 children.

I hope they’re not going to call this a “surgical strike.” If a surgeon were supposed to take out your appendix and took out your whole neighborhood instead, he would surely lose his license to practice (in any state, of course, excepting the District of Columbia). This sort of attack, along with the use of drones in Pakistan, is lauded as “clean, saving American lives.” It’s clear our President does not count Arab or Muslim children as “lives.”

Thank you, Mr. President, for helping to foster terrorism and hatred of America worldwide. The images of dead women and children are just what Al-Qaeda needed for its next recruitment video. Rather like trying to put out a fire by smothering it with gelignite. Nice going. Your predecessor could not have done it better.

Mr. Bin Laden must be sniggering himself to sleep at night knowing that everything he’s said about America is being played out on the world stage, only with a lot more gore, insensitivity and stupidity than even he gave us credit for.

As a Christian I shake out my clothes against this kind of foreign policy. It’s murder and it’s cowardly. Who’s the terrorist? I can’t decide.

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Time to Wake Up & Smell the Coffee

How many hundreds of times have I heard that song and never really understood it? This evening in church we sang “O Holy Night,” one of the most melodious and moving of Christmas carols. When it came to the part,

Chains shall he break, for the slave shall be our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

the verse hit me in the face like a wet mackerel.

Slavery is something most of us Americans cannot relate to. In our minds it belongs to another century, another world. But slavery is so very much alive. In a sense, our prosperity as a nation was and always has been built on the backs of slaves. Even today? Yes, even today. So many of the things we take for granted (coffee, sugar, bananas, cocoa, cotton, bricks) are the product of modern-day slave (often child) labor, and those cheap bargains we congratulate ourselves on obtaining at stores like Walmart, Pier 1, Old Navy, and Kohls, may have been made by oppressed workers who labor in appalling conditions and without a living wage. I have often felt spiritually smug thinking that buying cheap clothing is something Jesus would do. But it’s not; not if what I wear is the fruit of cruelty, greed and injustice.

In his letter to Philemon, the apostle Paul addresses slavery in detail. Oh, not by attacking the institution directly; he was too shrewd for that. Contemporary critics often give him demerits for not coming out full force against slavery. Some go so far as to make him an accomplice in the slave trade because of his supposed silence. But Paul was no friend to slavery. This letter shows it. You see, he knew that Christians were just a tiny struggling minority, with no vote, no rights of citizenship (unless, like Paul, you happened to have been born in a Roman colony). The economy of the ancient world was built on slave labor, and to attack the institution openly would have been quixotic, if not suicidal for the church, whose enemies were always on the lookout for signs of subversive activity. Instead, in this letter the apostle demonstrates what happens when two kingdoms collide and how the gospel transforms a culture.

Philemon, a slave owner, is informed that his runaway slave Onesimus has been found and is now in Paul’s company. Having led the slave to the Lord, the apostle convinces him to do the right thing and return to his master, but not without a letter from Paul asking Philemon, an old friend, to use mercy. Paul then reminds the slave-owner that the man who was once his property is now a brother.

It is difficult for us to imagine how radical and subversive such an idea would have been to the ancients. Slaves were chattel, the lowest rung of society, and they comprised as much as a third of the total population of the Roman empire. The threat of slave uprisings waas therefore a real and constant source of anxiety. Slavery was and always has been founded on fear and force. But how does one now “own” or hold the whip hand over a brother? The new relationship in Christ (in whom “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female,” but all are one) makes slavery, with all its brutality and inhumanity, impossible. Christianity came not to destroy slavery from without, but from within, by raising the slave and lowering the master to the same status before God. Indeed, Philemon must consider setting one free who is already free in Christ; to keep Onesimus in bondage no longer makes any logical sense.

Chains shall he break, for the slave shall be our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

During this Christmas season, let us consider that the slave who picked the beans to make that cup of cocoa or the sweat-shop seamstress who stitched together that Christmas sweater is our brother or sister. And how can we allow a sibling to suffer to make us well-clad and comfortable?

In many ways both our prosperity and security as a nation are a mirage. There is no true prosperity, no true security without justice, only impending judgment. If these statements are true, the appropriate response is, of course, “What then should we do?”

Taking action against slavery and injustice takes both courage and sacrifice. It starts by educating ourselves about the products we consume. We can start by looking at websites such as these that help us to become ethical shoppers not just blind consumers. Once you start you will be shocked at how wide and strong and intricate the web of slavery and injustice is and how thoroughly our nation and our lifestyles are implicated in supporting them.

Buy Fair Trade products whenever possible. These are products, such as coffee, sugar, chocolate, bananas, etc., whose producers pay a living wage and do business in an environmentally sustainable manner. Look for the Fair Trade label. You will pay more, but who said doing the right thing was cheap? Speak to your local supermarket. Ask them to stock more Fair Trade products. Most grocers do nothing because we say nothing.

Clothing. The garment industry is responsible for a large portion of the world’s sweatshop and child labor. Chains such as Walmart and the Gap (which also owns Old Navy and Banana Republic) and brands such as Nike have been deeply implicated in using sweatshop and child labor. Educate yourself about the clothing you buy and the merchants you buy from. There are many small online companies dealing in Fair Trade clothing. If you can’t find what you want there, you can always find great bargains and good quality clothing at thrift stores– and you’ll be stylin’ (at least in the Lord’s eyes).

Lastly, fight pornography. The porn industry is the biggest consumer of slave labor in the world. Don’t feed it. Fight it.


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The Babylonian Captivity of America

It’s been quite a week. A week of destruction, sabotage, sophistry and outright villainy. Over the past seven days we’ve seen war called “peace” in Oslo, a land mine treaty left unsigned in Cartagena, the plug pulled on a public insurance option already on life support in DC, and crude strong-arm tactics used by rich nations (led by us) to silence the cries of poor ones in Copenhagen. Yes, it’s been a banner week for the affluent and powerful, for the makers of explosives and instruments of mayhem, for the polluters who treat creation like an endless roll of Charmin, and for the sophists and sultans of spin who love to spit on our cupcake and call it frosting.

When asked what our President represents at Copenhagen, feisty Indian environmentalist Vendana Shiva replied, “…Obama represents a captive White House, captive to the industrial interests and the corporate interests of America.” There it is. The Babylonian Captivity of our nation. If you want to see who really controls this nation and just how low, selfish and bullying we can be, just look at what is being done in our name in Copenhagen.

When I look at Congress and what now passes for an “insurance reform bill” (which now gives more favors to the industry than ever before, including the right to put annual limits on coverage, even on those who are undergoing major health crises, such as cancer). I think of the farmer who began to mix sawdust with his horse’s oats to save money. The horse didn’t seem to notice, so he gradually mixed more and more, until eventually the feed bag was nothing but sawdust. The horse died, of course. The next time we write a letter to our august elected representatives, I suggest we use their real titles based on the constituency they truly represent. Instead of “the Senator from New York” or “the Senator from Connecticut,” it should be “the Senator from Hallibuton,” “the Senator from Goldman Sachs,” or “the Senator from Exxon-Mobil.”

As a Christian, and as an American, I was appalled at my President’s lecture to the Nobel Peace Committee on all the reasons why we cannot have peace. His claim, however, that the conflicts he presides over are “just” wars leaks water like a sieve, since only last week we saw the ultimate goal of these two invasions bearing more monstrous fruit. I refer to the second auctioning of Iraqi oil rights to the highest bidder, with all the major companies, from Exxon-Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell to Lukoil, in attendance. This war wasn’t about oil, we were told. Hmm. Is that why the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan (a major pipeline nation) were being planned as far back as the first Bush (HW) administration? 9-11 simply gave them the excuse they needed.

Tragically, now in Copenhagen the Babylonian captivity of one country has also become the Babylonian captivity of the earth. We’re told that curiosity killed the cat, but it will be greed that kills this planet.

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