Monthly Archives: February 2011

Wise Up, Rise Up

Have you noticed?  It’s been happening for years.  Only now it seems to have shifted into overdrive, like a long-distance runner who speeds up when he sees the finish line.  It’s been called a gradual “coup d’etat.”  No, I’m not talking about Egypt or Tunisia.  I’m speaking of America–the slow corporate take-over of a nation–and hardly any of us were noticing. In fact, most of us have actually assisted.

This is not about one particular political party.  Both sides of the aisle have been complicit in the selling off of our democracy to the highest bidder– as are all three branches of our federal government.  It’s nothing new.  It’s a threat that has existed from the very beginning of our republic.  The Founders were aware of it.  Tom Jefferson complained angrily of the “moneyed interests” that were already exerting undue influence over legislation and legislators. Theodore Roosevelt saw corporate domination of politics as the single most serious threat to American democracy. So the present crisis is really as old as the United States itself.  Yet the crisis we see in its present form began in earnest over thirty years ago. 

Remember the “trickle down” economic theory?  Perhaps one of the greatest examples of mass hypnosis ever perpetrated.  Witness how violently people will still defend it today, despite the fact that it has been such an abject failure.  (Over the past three decades, income for the top 1% of wage earners has skyrocketed, while income for the middle class has little better than flat-lined.  So when does all that prosperity trickle down? Maybe if we just wait a little longer. Or could it be that we were simply had?  If you want my rather coarse opinion, the only thing that has trickled down on us ain’t green.)

We were also told that “government is not the answer to our problems; government is the problem.”  Such a statement hooked into the pioneer spirit of Americans with our inherent mistrust of government and love of free markets.  Sad how we bought into that one, too, as though Capitalism were a virtuous flower that needed no weeding, no tending.  Now look where we are, after decades of massive deregulation of everything from oil companies to the banking industry:  an economy in shambles, a widening gap between rich and poor, tar-soaked animals washing up on our beaches, poisoned air and drinking water…. 

Then we have the corporate consolidation of media.  In the aftermath of Watergate and the end of U.S. participation in the war in Vietnam, media moguls, who blamed a “liberal media” for the unraveling of a President and a war, vowed this would never happen again.  They bided their time, bought Congress, and, through the patient overturning of federal anti-trust laws, began building media empires, so that today the vast majority of newpapers, television, cable and internet companies are owned by only a handful of companies.  I recall when I visited South Africa in the late 80s during Apartheid, you had only to watch television or read a newspaper to see the truth in the dictum, “If you control the flow of information, you control opinion.”  It is a scary proposition, but we are seeing it come to pass here before our eyes.  Americans are among the most misinformed and misled people on the planet. And it’s not because we don’t watch enough TV!

It is now budget season and, therefore, open season on the poor and weak and the organizations that champion them.  They call it “fiscal conservatism.”  It’s really just the primordial class war of rich against poor.  And in order to remove the focus from themselves, those who are the real cause of our economic and social woes would have us blame minorities, immigrants, welfare recipients, gays, public broadcasting, and of course, the unions, one of the last obstacles to total corporate domination.   

Why should this concern the followers of Jesus Christ?  Because we happen to serve a God who hates bullies and greed, who champions the weak against the strong, the poor and oppressed against the rich and arrogant.  Whether it be David standing up to Goliath, Nehemiah upbraiding the Jewish leaders for oppressing the poor, or James, the Lord’s brother, haranguing the rich for cheating their workers, our God is a God who cares deeply for the poor and weak, for the widow and orphan, for the alien and foreigner, those who have no voice– and he expects no less from those who are called his people.  


So what can we do?

As Americans we are too tame.  As Christians we need to get angry. We need to take a page from those struggling for freedom in the Middle East. We need to wise up and rise up.  How?  To speak out with passion, not rage and violence, but a holy indignation.  To be informed and to inform others.

As a pastor I get angry when I see families with two working parents who see their children only a few hours each day and still cannot make ends meet.  I get angry when I see families about to lose their home because they were enticed into a mortgage they cannot afford.   I get angry when I hear elected officials tell the poor and middle class that they must shoulder the burden for this economic downturn, while those who caused it, already bailed out on the backs of taxpayers, are reporting record profits. I get angry when I see my a President say we must cut heating assistance to the poor, while the vast, bloated military budget ever increases (why is it we can afford to bomb people, but not warm them?).  I get angry when I hear a governor tell his state employees there is not enough money for their pensions, when he just gave his corporate cronies over a hundred million in unwarranted tax breaks.  How about you?  Our republic has become a kleptocracy, and we’ve all allowed it to happen.

We need to exercise our vote in a godly manner.  Like Esau we have sold our birthright for a pot of stew. Christians on both sides of the aisle should be called to repent for helping to install people in office who have auctioned us to the highest bidder.  We need to repent of our blindness and ineptitude brought on by fear, selfishness and a slavish devotion to one or other political party.  We are all part of the problem.  Instead of voting for those who will line our pockets, promise us the most security or the lowest taxes, defend our selfish lifestyles, or use the most religious jargon, we must pray for God to raise up men and women who are both honest and wise, shrewd and compassionate, courageous and just, not beholden to the rich and powerful, not the lapdogs of corporate power.

My advice?  If you are a member of a political party, quit. That’s right.  Quit!  It’s easy to do. Simply go to your local county board of elections site, download a voter registration form, check the appropriate box under change party affiliation (i.e., none), and mail it in. Stay engaged and involved, continue to vote more than ever, but remove yourself from the self-justification necessitated by party politics. Stop being sheep led to slaughter, and I think you will find you will see more clearly to be of greater service to both God and country.  As Americans if we revere the Father of our Country, we would do well to mark his wise words:

[A party spirit] serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption….

And not only that…

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.   (from Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796)

Vote at the polling place but also vote with your wallet.  Do not support media companies (TV, cable, etc.) that distort the news and profit from misinformation.  Get your news from independent or alternative sources. Do not buy from or invest in corporations with poor track records in human rights, worker rights, the environment.  Buy organic foods and buy local produce.  If you want to starve the beast, don’t feed it.  Let us become, not a consumer culture, but –what we were meant to be– a counter culture.

Organize.  Nothing has ever changed for the better in this country simply because some elected leader wanted it so.  Such a view of history only makes us passive.  Positive change happened when average people like you and me got involved, organized and banged on the gates of power and demanded it.  Emancipation. Child labor laws.  Women’s suffrage.  The New Deal.  Civil rights.

And pray, pray, pray.  Pray for an end to American Empire and that God would instead save America (we cannot have both).  Pray for repentance from our selfish consumerism, pride and lack of concern for the poor and suffering.  Pray for true freedom and democracy to be established in the Middle East and beyond.  Pray that our fellow Americans would wise up, rise up, unite and take this country back from our corporate overlords, and create a nation and an economy that is free and just for all.  Pray for God to break the stranglehold of Big Oil and of corporate power over our government and foreign policy.  Pray for honest and wise leaders not beholden to wealth and power.  Pray for the dismantling of the congressional-military-industrial complex, that America’s vast military might would no longer be a tool of empire and corporate greed. Pray for the collapse of media monopolies and their control over the minds of our countrymen. 

The church is a sleeping giant that needs to disenthrall itself and shake off its addiction to its own wealth and security and the status quo.  We should not only be concerned with sins, but with the sinful systems that support them– especially when we are a part of them.  Christ is God’s answer to the world’s aching emptiness and self-destructive idolatry, as well as the twin evils of greed and poverty.  The church is his means of bringing that Answer to the light, but we cannot be part of the answer if we are part of the problem.


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The Mask of Empire
su·ze·rain. n. 1. A nation that controls another nation in international affairs but allows it domestic sovereignty.

In his 1961 inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy remarked, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”  Any student of history will attest to the veracity of such a statement, as can anyone who has been following the images on the TV screen these past few weeks. 

In a matter of days, the flames of revolution that swept one dictator out of power in Tunisia (of all unlikely places), have leaped across North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula to engulf other Arab regimes in Cairo, Amman, and Sana’a.

Yet even as I am riveted by the seemingly endless courage of protesters in Tahrir Square, I am also nonetheless fascinated by my own government’s clumsy ability to speak out of two sides of its mouth, a trick that is actually not so difficult when one has two faces.

The mythology of the Benevolent Empire is as old as empire itself.  In the ancient Near East, the suzerainty treaty (a covenant made between a more powerful empire and a smaller vassal state) extolled the empire’s ruler as a “father” to the client kingdom and emphasized his benevolent acts on their behalf– all the while with his feet on their necks and their hands trembling with tribute.  The Greeks and Brits brought “civilization” (theirs) and the Romans “peace” (the peace after an atomic blast), all with a heavy price tag of brutal repression and rapacious exploitation.

As I remarked in a previous blog, America has always been a nation tragically at odds with itself.  It is why so much of the world both admires and hates us with equal intensity.  We speak words that make the world dream– of liberty and sacred human rights– but our ambassadors are not Jefferson and Lincoln.  They are Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Exxon-Mobil, Caterpillar, and Blackwater.   

Even as they yearn for the freedoms we appear to enjoy, Egyptian protesters can more easily appreciate the irony, since they have only to look up to see American-made F-16s buzzing their assembled masses. Along with the tanks and tear gas canisters aimed at them, and the software used to maintain the massive Egyptian security state, all have one thing in common.  They all bear the “Made in USA” label.  Ironic?  Yes.  But that is how empire works, how it has always worked:  creating an illusory prosperity that is the envy of the world, yet one that is ultimately unsustainable because it can exist only through the sweat of slaves and the cruel oppression and plunder of distant lands.

The lust for empire also makes strange bedfellows, causing us to bed down with dictators as brutal as Turkmenistan’s Berdymuhammedov (by the time you’ve pronounced it, you’ve been detained) or Equatorial Guinea’s Nguema (ah, what we won’t do for oil).  As for Mubarak all those billions we shoveled his way came back to U.S. corporations in the form of defense contracts, just another form of corporate welfare for the boys.  No wonder he’s stayed in power so long.  Good Ol’ Ike warned us of the dangerous confluence of military and industrial power and its unwarranted influence to determine policy.  But I suppose it is only now, perhaps too late, that we are finally beginning to understand what he meant. 

We ask one dictator to leave (ah, democracy?) but support one of his henchmen to succeed– one who lived in the shadows overseeing his country’s ugly security apparatus, including the so-called “black sites” (places of rendition and torture).  So the “reform” and “change” we support amounts to a mere reshuffling of the same deck. Imagine if the Allies had asked Hitler to resign in favor of Himmler.  One is reminded of the unrepentant Augustine, who prayed, “Lord, give me chastity and continence– but not yet!”  Happily, the Egyptian people are not so gullible as the American public.

Empire is all a brutal illusion.  And it is during such crises as this in our foreign policy that the humanitarian mask slips somewhat comically, and we see the true face of empire in all its hideousness– that when push comes to shove, all our talk about democracy and human rights is mere cant, a humbug, the pious pecksniffery used to anesthetize our victims, including a home audience living in a fool’s paradise.

If we have any sympathy for those struggling for freedom in the Middle East, the most decent thing we can do is to wake up, to understand what we have become as a nation, and how we all help to support this system of empire.  Cheap oil.  Cheap clothing.  Cheap food.  And Security (read, freedom for U.S. corporations to pillage unmolested).  God has not blessed us with these things because we are good.  They are the end products of empire, squeezed out of a system of oppression and violence, then aseptically sprayed and washed for home consumption.

And once we have reached this epiphany, to stop participating in the pantomime and to join the real world of adults who are standing tall and marching against the tide.


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