Monthly Archives: March 2010

Taking a Hard Look at Your Investments

“I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”– Luke 16:9

Saving for retirement is a wise thing. But if you have retirement investments, such as an IRA, 401(k), or 403(b), you know that most high yielding mutual funds are made up of an interminably long list of individual stocks (index funds), many of whom resemble a Dick-Tracy-like rogues’ gallery of oil spillers, chemical polluters, coal burners, privacy invaders, big agra, big pharma, or the military-industrial complex: from Monsanto and Shell Oil to Haliburton and Walmart. For some of these, treating the environment like an endless roll of toilet tissue may be the least of their crimes. They are also actively engaged in oppression of workers, child labor, downright slavery, or even war crimes or crimes against humanity.

I suppose most investors are not aware of these issues. Perhaps we don’t ask because we don’t want to know. We’re looking for the big return, if we’re going to enjoy retirement and avoid working at CVS into our eighties. But complicity is complicity, whether it’s done with foreknowledge or merely out of ignorance. We do have a responsibility to make sure our money is invested ethically and that big return does not come with a high human and environmental cost.

18th-century Methodist evangelist and theologian John Wesley was one who challenged his followers in the ethical use of mammon. His sermon “The Use of Money” is still a sound practical guide for the Christian who wants to make good return on his earthly investments without doing harm to himself or his neighbor in body or soul.

Fortunately, there now is a growing market for what are called Socially Responsible Investments (SRIs). These are investments in corporations that are screened for certain ethical, economic, environmental and labor practices. An SRI fund selects stocks in companies that have taken a stand on sustainability (in their use of the planet and human beings) or have reformed their corporate culture in terms of executive compensation and financial transparency. But the emphasis here is not on ethics alone; it’s also on good return. It is actually possible to have both.

For more information on SRIs, check with your investment management company. Many have at least a few of these. If you are not satisfied, change companies if you can. [That may not be possible with a 401(k) or 403(b), but speak to your employer and let your voice be heard.]

For more information on SRIs, click here or here.

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Addams Family Values

With the escalation of the war in Afghanistan and drone attacks in Pakistan have come increasing civilian deaths: bodies of innocent women and children pulled limp and lifeless from the rubble of what used to be their homes, as well as hushed accounts of abuses, civilian executions and rape by U.S troops. War is always war against women and children.

With all these headlines one wonders where are our purported “family values”? America’s conservative Christian population has used the phrase as a rallying cry for a generation, but what does it mean?

Well, if you ask what it means biblically, the phrase family values means that I should want for your family and every family what I want for my own. But if you are merely concerned with what it means in common practice, then it would probably go something like this: I want to protect my family from the evils of modern life in a “free society.”

Don’t get me wrong. As a husband and parent I am deeply concerned to protect my family from the evil influences of an increasingly secular world. I just happen to believe that fighting the world also means engaging it, as opposed to the circle-the-wagons laager mentality.

I also believe that if I do not seek justice for the oppressed, plead for the victims of war and for those who have no voice, then how can I expect my voice to be heard by a just God when I cry out? What right have I to expect him to protect my family values if I do not do what I can to protect those of others?

Do I want my children to grow up in a safe neighborhood free of bombs, mines, and unexploded ordnance? Do I want them to be able to sleep at night without lying awake listening for the quiet whir of drones overhead? Do I want them to be able to believe that all human life is sacred, whether in the womb or on a playground or a battlefield and not have to live in fear of being snuffed out at any moment?

If family values are something we want only for ourselves and not for others, then we shall have neither. It does not take a prophet to say this. The divine order of the universe decrees it to be so. As long as people in other countries are only dots on a map to us instead of anguished faces crying out for justice, for food, for God, then we have no right to cry out to God and expect him to answer our prayers for our-selves, our families, our communities.

Perhaps the problem is that we seek family values for ourselves and Addams Family values for others.

Let’s try an experiment. Look at the picture above. See the face of the anguished father. Now replace the face of the child with that of one of your children or a loved one. What do you feel? I’m sorry to have to be so graphic, but we Americans are so desensitized to what is done in our name, this may be the only way to make it real to us.

Now consider that we together have the power to stop this.

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Tribute to Romero

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered by a death squad while celebrating mass, one day after calling on Salvadoran soldiers to obey God’s higher law and stop oppressing the people and violating human rights. Romero was a courageous and outspoken voice for social justice at a violent time in his country’s history. Sharply critical of both Marxism and Capitalism, he spoke on behalf of the poor and the victims of civil war. Along with such towering figures as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., he is considered one of the 20th-century martyrs of the church. Here is an excerpt from his last sermon, preached before his death:

“Let no one be offended because we use the divine words read at our mass to shed light on the social, political and economic situation of our people. Not to do so would be unchristian. Christ desires to unite himself with humanity, so that the light he brings from God might become life for nations and individuals.

“I know many are shocked by this preaching and want to accuse us of forsaking the gospel for politics. But I reject this accusation. I am trying to bring to life the message of the Second Vatican Council and the meetings at Medellin and Puebla. The documents from these meetings should not just be studied theoretically. They should be brought to life and translated into the real struggle to preach the gospel as it should be for our people. Each week I go about the country listening to the cries of the people, their pain from so much crime, and the ignominy of so much violence. Each week I ask the Lord to give me the right words to console, to denounce, to call for repentance. And even though I may be a voice crying in the desert, I know that the church is making the effort to fulfill its mission….

“Every country lives its own ‘exodus’; today El Salvador is living its own exodus. Today we are passing to our liberation through a desert strewn with bodies and where anguish and pain are devastating us. Many suffer the temptation of those who walked with Moses and wanted to turn back and did not work together. It is the same old story. God, however, wants to save the people by making a new history….

“History will not fail; God sustains it. That is why I say that insofar as historical projects attempt to reflect the eternal plan of God, to that extent they reflect the kingdom of God. This attempt is the work of the church. Because of this, the church, the people of God in history, is not attached to any one social system, to any political organization, to any party. The church does not identify herself with any of those forces because she is the eternal pilgrim of history and is indicating at every historical moment what reflects the kingdom of God and what does not reflect the kingdom of God. She is the servant of the Kingdom of God.

“The great task of Christians must be to absorb the spirit of God’s kingdom and, with souls filled with the kingdom of God, to work on the projects of history. It’s fine to be organized in popular groups; it’s all right to form political parties; it’s all right to take part in the government. It’s fine as long as you are a christian who carries the reflection of the kingdom of God and tries to establish it where you are working, and as long as you are not being used to further worldly ambitions. This is the great duty of the people of today. My dear Christians, I have always told you, and I will repeat, that the true liberators of our people must come from us Christians, from the people of God. Any historical plan that’s not based on what we spoke of in the first point-the dignity of the human being, the love of God, the kingdom of Christ among people-will be a fleeting project. Your project, however, will grow in stability the more it reflects the eternal design of God. It will be a solution of the common good of the people every time, if it meets the needs of the people…. Now I invite you to look at things through the eyes of the church, which is trying to be the kingdom of God on earth and so often must illuminate the realities of our national situation….”

More Romero quotes…

“Do you want to know if your Christianity is genuine? Here is the touchstone: Whom do you get along with? Who are those who criticize you? Who are those who do not accept you? Who are those who flatter you?”

“Even when they call us mad, when they call us subversives and communists and all the epithets they put on us, we know we only preach the subversive witness of the Beatitudes, which have turned everything upside down.”

“A church that suffers no persecution but enjoys the privileges and support of the things of the earth – beware! – is not the true church of Jesus Christ. A preaching that does not point out sin is not the preaching of the gospel. A preaching that makes sinners feel good, so that they are secured in their sinful state, betrays the gospel’s call.”

“Before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God.”

“Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity. It is right and it is duty.”

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Pax Israeliana

Undeniably, next to slavery, one of the greatest blots on the collective American soul is the treatment of the native peoples who once inhabited this land from coast to coast: our systematic displacement and cultural and physical annihilation of whole people groups is not often taught or discussed in detail, since it’s usually the winners who write the history books. But if you want to know how ’twas done, you need look no further than the current occupation of Palestine by the Israelis, sponsored by none other than the good ol’ U.S. of A. The mindset of manifest destiny, the racism that fuels and justifies it, the settling and downright grabbing of native land, the gradual but violent encirclement resulting in devastating poverty, malnutrition and despair– ethnic cleansing in all its hideousness– all of this could be taken from a page of our own history (if we had recorded it).

In 2Chronicles 19, Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, returns from assisting Ahab, the wicked king of Israel, in battle. Jehoshaphat was supposedly one of the “good kings” but he made a grave mistake in allying himself with the house of Ahab, not only marrying his son to that dynasty but also sending military support. The alliance would prove poisonous and almost fatal to the kingdom of Judah for generations to come–indeed it almost got Jehoshaphat killed. Upon his arrival home he receives a rebuke from the prophet Jehu, who asks, “Should you help the wicked and make an alliance with those who hate the Lord? Because of this the wrath of the Lord is upon you….”

Yes, the Lord did promise Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you;” yet this was not a command to enter into treaties with wicked kings like Ahab, who stole land that was not his. In this instance, Jehoshaphat blessed cousin Israel and came under the Lord’s judgment instead. Fancy that.

I remind my fellow Christians of this passage, since it offers a much needed counterbalance to the dispensational belief that has permeated the church through Christian media that the nations will be judged on the basis of how they treat the nation of Israel in the last days (such is their interpretation of the “least of these” in Mt 25:31-46). Actually, Jesus’ reference to the “least of these” is similar to his teaching on “who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10)– the answer there being, quite obviously, anyone who is in need, even an enemy. The Lord does not show favoritism. Anyone who is poor or suffering, therefore, is the “least of these brothers of mine.” And if that is the case, where do the Palestinians fit? Even if we limited the “least of these” to the church, as some do, what about Palestinian Christians?

It is an oft-repeated tragedy of history that the persecuted can just as easily become the persecutor. Such is certainly the case with the church, and with modern day Israel, created as a haven for Jews who have suffered centuries of pogroms and holocaust, but now become one of the greatest threats to peace in the region and a violent oppressor of Muslims and Christians alike. How sadly tragic. As Passover nears when Jews everywhere reenact the story of slavery and deliverance in Egypt, one wonders will their hearts reach out to the suffering Palestinians? “Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice…. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this” (Dt 24:17,18) It is a frequent refrain in the Law of Moses.

Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud government last week showed our Vice-President what it really feels about us and that it is committed in no way to the peace process, only to unbridled expansion on the back of an already despairing native people. Why does a country that is dependent on the US for 4 billion a year in aid, not to mention military supplies, act so arrogantly? Because it can. As one Israeli journalist put it, “To wipe the spit off his face. Biden had to say it was only rain” (an Israeli expression referring to someone too weak to defend himself).

Gen. Petraeus himself contacted the Joint Chiefs of Staff to register his concern that Israeli intransigence endangers American lives in Afghanistan (he failed to mention American lives at home too). That at least was helpful; the Pentagon carries a big stick in Washington. But the only way to restrain Israel in its mad rush over the precipice (and taking us with it) is to establish consequences for such behavior– consequences mean $$$. Such discipline has not been used since the elder Bush Administration but would be in Israel’s own self-interest as well as our own, since their current course is nothing short of self-destructive, stirring up Muslim hatred for both themselves and us worldwide. There can be no real or lasting peace or security for Israel (or the US) without justice.

So massive is the fist of the Israel lobby in Washington, however, (given even greater heft by the economic and political support of much of American conservative evangelicalism) that hope for change is bleak– as evidenced by the Obama administration’s almost pusillanimously apologetic backpeddling after its initial rebukes of Bibi’s behavior. Unless…

If enough Christians start caring enough to register their objections and clamor for a less lopsided and more just approach to peace in the region, both Congress and the Administration will have to take notice. Or let me put it bluntly, fellow believers: you can be either part of the problem and a persecutor of the church (remember Palestinian Christians who suffer just as much as their Muslim neighbors) or you can be part of God’s solution to bring justice and lasting peace to a troubled region. Unless, of course, like many American Christians, you don’t give a hoot about anyone but are hellbent on stirring up Armageddon so Jesus will beam you out of here. In that case, I can only hope for you that the pre-tribulationists are right.

Consider writing to your elected officials today. Tell them Israel does not have to be abandoned to be held accountable and you do not want your hard earned tax dollars used in this way to prop up such an oppressive regime.

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