If George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, and P.D. James were drinking coffee and brainstorming what kind of evil paperwork people would forced to fill out in one of their dystopias, this is what they would come up with.
• I always looked forward to being on the color guard in Boy Scouts. Learning the flag code and participating in ceremonies with the scouts made me aware that we were part of a bigger American story, even if we were just kids playing steal the bacon and learning how to cook over a fire.
• One of my favorite memories of South Korea was encountering an elderly man on the subway, who asked us, “American?” We said yes, and he spent the rest of the trip smiling and nodding at us. When we reached our destination, he stood up with tears in his eyes, took an American-flag handkerchief out of his pocket and waved it to us, saying, “Good-bye, friends!” It occurred to us that he had probably lived through the devastation of the Korean War, and was still grateful that he was not in a prison camp. The flag meant something to him.
• In the present controversy over kneeling during the anthem in protest, people often claim that this behavior is disrespectful to the military and veterans. This is a red herring. The American flag is not only the flag of the military—it is the flag of the whole United States. It is the flag of women suffragists no less than the Army, and the flag of Japanese internment camp survivors no less than the Air Force. That’s the thing about the flag—nobody gets to own it, because we all own it. This country is run by its people, not a junta. The sacrifice and suffering of soldiers does not trump the sacrifice and suffering of black men lynched for having the courage to register to vote. It is not elevated to some higher or more sacred platform than the brave sacrifice of ordinary citizens whose homes were bombed for protesting injustice.
• The Armed Forces of the United States of America is not a priesthood, though it is often elevated to that position by chickenhawk civilians. While the military (and its various branches) has its own culture, codes, and customs, its purpose is to serve the nation—not the other way around. The veterans I know from every branch who have served proudly are deeply philosophical about their service. They know their colleagues and the people they command(ed) are human beings—siblings, parents, children—who all have hopes and dreams. They are from all different economic levels, races, and backgrounds, and all have their own struggles. The leaders among them think strategically and understand the value of diversity, the importance of outcome-based measurement, how to set clear goals, and how to discern leadership potential. They also understand that life is complicated. They are not politically homogenous. They are people I am proud to know.
• The flag, and the nation it represents, is far younger than slavery, which existed in this land before our nation did, and the effects of which continue to be ignored, redacted, and downplayed by many white Americans. Citizens owe nothing to the flag that they do not also owe to their ancestors. Again, without slaves, Native Americans, women suffragists, civil rights protesters, abolitionists, immigrants, and organizers, there is no American history, and the flag stands for nothing worth respecting. If one does not know something of this history, one does not know the flag, and any gestures toward this multivalent symbol are worthless.
• MLK repeatedly made the point that protest is not palatable to people in power or to those comfortable with the status quo. He pointed out that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and the early Christians were protesters who faced public shaming and death. The people who threw Christians and Jews to the lions also claimed that these people were trouble-makers, ungrateful to Rome (or Babylon), disrespectful, and generally individuals of low moral character. People who protest would not have to protest if everyone agreed with them!
• Nobody’s inferences of disrespect get to have more weight in the public moral universe than someone else’s clearly stated purposes for their actions. Continuing to claim that kneeling is “disrespectful” is an arbitrary judgment. Actions have many meanings: for example, according to the flag code, burning the flag is an acceptable way to dispose of a damaged flag; burning at a protest has a different meaning. If someone chooses to be offended by the proper burning of the flag, or by kneeling at its display, I suppose that is their business. Technically, you are not supposed to applaud at the end of the national anthem, but people do anyway. Nobody storms out of the stadium because people have shown disrespect by applauding. The meaning you attribute to someone else’s behavior is really more about you than about them.
• The commodification of the flag, its use as a bumper sticker, and its appropriation by white nationalists bothers me far more than professional athletes kneeling in front of it. Just as it grieves me that the language of my faith has been appropriated by people like Roy Moore to justify bigotry, it grieves me that the flag has been appropriated by people for the purpose of silencing protest and advancing white supremacy. Those who take the cross and flag as symbols for their tribalism have missed the point of each, and created a national religion that is more about the worship of Molech and Baal than of the God of Jesus Christ, and a patriotism that is more about white supremacy than about civic engagement or support for our shared values.
I just completed an essay for FaithLink on Mass Incarceration. I did a huge survey of recent research, news articles, and opinion pieces. Some of the best are below.
Why should people of faith care about mass incarceration? It is a quiet genocide. Justice demands a response. Scripture also demands a response, and is skeptical about claims of invincible ignorance:
If you show yourself weak on a day of distress, your strength is too small. Rescue those being taken off to death; and from those staggering to the slaughter, don’t hold back.
If you say, “Look, we didn’t know about it,” the one who weighs hearts—doesn’t he understand? The one who protects your life—he knows. He makes people pay for their actions.
Stats on Mass Incarceration:
- “Mass Incarceration,” from Equal Justice Initiative
- Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017” from Prison Policy Initiative
- “Incarceration Generation Timeline” from Justice Policy Institute
Stats on Homicide Rates by Country:
- Kuang Keng Kuek Ser. “Map: Here are countries with the world’s highest murder rates” from Public Radio International
(To address talking point/myth that mass incarceration is caused by excessive criminality in the US)
Conservative Support for Prison Reform:
- Rand Paul. “Sessions’ sentencing plan would ruin lives” from CNN
- David Frum, interview with Steve Teles. “The Precarious Position of the New GOP Orthodoxy on Crime” from The Atlantic
- Bill Keller. “Is Charles Koch a Closet Liberal?” from The Marshall Project
Causes of Mass Incarceration:
- “Colorblind” Racial Bias in Sentencing:
Danielle Kurtzleven. “Data Show Racial Disparity in Crack Sentencing” from US News and World Report
- Prosecutorial Power (District Attorneys):
Adam Gopnik. “How We Misunderstand Mass Incarceration” from The New Yorker
- For-Profit Prisons:
Eric Markowitz. “Making Profits on the Captive Prison Markets” from The New Yorker
Andy Kroll. “This Is How Private Prison Companies Make Millions Even When Crime Rates Fall” from Mother Jones
Film Documentaries & Videos About Mass Incarceration and Slavery:
- “Slavery By Another Name” by PBS
- “13th” by Netflix
- “Mass Incarceration in the US” (YouTube) by vlogbrothers
- “Mass Incarceration, Visualized” (YouTube) by The Atlantic
United Methodist Sources:
- John Singleton. “At the Roots of Methodism: Wesley fought for prison reform” from United Methodist Communications
- United Methodist Social Principles on Criminal Justice
- Charles Lane. “The quiet decline of mass incarceration in America” from Richmond-Times Dispatch
- Stephanos Bibos. “The Truth About Mass Incarceration” from National Review. This article claims that racialized outcomes are not because of systemic racism, and makes the argument for prison labor / slavery.
Organizations Working to End Mass Incarceration
For Further Reading:
God is concerned about the material conditions for human flourishing.
“Material conditions” means the stuff out of which life is made. That means tangible stuff: money, bodies (health), food, water, and physical touch. This is why so much of the Bible is about poverty and economic inequality, why there’s manna in the wilderness, why Jesus heals peoples’ bodies, and why incarnational theology is so important.
It’s also why Ezekiel’s God is so angry with the way the rich despoil the planet and ruin it for the poor.
God is also concerned with the social conditions for human flourishing.
“Social conditions” means the stuff out of which our life together is made. Relationships, politics, power, justice, and communication. This is why so much of the Bible deals with jealousy, anger, and forgiveness; with shared, decentralized leadership; with moral double-standards and hypocrisy.
I think it’s important to state these things, because there is a toxic Christian meme that regularly makes the rounds that asserts that God cares more about your holiness than your happiness.
I understand what people are trying to say when they assert these things: that our culture is self-centered and pleasure-seeking. But the Bible never contrasts holiness with happiness. True happiness, biblical authors assert, comes from meditating on and understanding Torah—not just the literal words of it, but the deeper truths to which they point. The Hebrew Torah was like the Greek Logos. It was Wisdom, the principles by which God created the world, and when human beings sought them out, they would find “true happiness.”
In this, the biblical authors agreed with Greek philosophers like Epicurus, Epictetus, and Aristotle. Happiness is more than pleasure-seeking: it is found in virtue and understanding. You can’t buy it, and excess wealth is dangerous—but it’s hard to be happy in poverty.
Jesus echoes his Jewish tradition and comments on Greek philosophy as well when he says this stuff:
“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
“Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.
“Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.
“Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.
“Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.
“Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.
“Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.
“Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
“Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. (Matthew 5:3-11, CEB)
You would think that these assertions would be uncontroversial: God cares about the material and social conditions for human flourishing. God is concerned with human happiness. But there is a political aspect to these statements as well.
God is not concerned about the poor because God wants them to be holy; God wants them to be happy—which has political implications. God wants oppressed and marginalized people—the “thin sheep” in Ezekiel’s story—to be happy, to have fresh water and good pasture, not dirty water and ruined pasture.
A God who cares about human happiness is a dangerous God. God is dangerous to those who relativize the happiness of other human beings.
This God who desires mercy and not sacrifice, who cares about human happiness and not merely holiness, IS controversial. Holiness is the means, not the end. We do not pursue happiness in order to be holy, but holiness in order to be happy. Holiness which does not lead to greater human flourishing is not holy. It is infernal.
1. All theology is political.
2. Theology which claims it is not political is both political and dishonest.
3. Theological language which attempts to transcend politics, casts aspersions on “both sides” of an issue, or is deployed to make its users feel better about their privilege is political, dishonest, and condescending.
4. I’ve definitely been guilty of #3.
I’ve seen and heard quite a few comments from folks recently about the possibility of eliminating the charitable tax deduction as a way of balancing the federal budget. My secular friends of both conservative and liberal persuasions, and a few of my liberal religious friends often complain that a lot of church energy is spent not on helping the poor, but on providing country-club services for their members. They point to celebrity preachers who have made “ministry” into a big business.
There are two main reasons, from an economic perspective, why eliminating the tax deduction for charitable contributions to religious organizations would be a bad idea.
First, churches have an enormous positive economic impact on their communities. It has been referred to as the “halo effect.” The researchers in the linked article gauge the average net economic contribution of churches to their local communities at anywhere from two to six times their annual budgets. In other words, every dollar you give to a church is creating more than a dollar of value. This is due in part to the way that churches multiply their ministry by the volunteer power of their constituents.
There are few other organizations that can compare to this kind of value multiplication. Cities who grant tax breaks for a new Wal-Mart often find that the economic effect is negative. Local churches (and, I would guess, other religious organizations) are a much better investment. (I think it’s debatable whether or not this kind of deduction should count as a subsidy, but that’s another topic).
Second, the people affected most by this deduction would be the poor—not only because it would hurt ministry to them, but because the poor are more generous. People at the lowest end of the income scale give an average of 4% of their income to ministries that directly benefit their communities. Upper-middle-class and rich folks give only around 3%. (There are both psychological and social reasons for the stinginess of the wealthy). I recognize that most of the poor and middle-class are already receiving the maximum tax deduction allowed, but these giving patterns in poorer communities reflect the kind of civic engagement and social responsibility that people like Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich (none of whom tithed last year, while insisting that churches, not government, should take care of the poor) talk about all the time. Why would we signal that we no longer wanted to encourage this kind of engagement?
Every fundraising expert I know talks about the importance of motivating a community to give—not just individuals. When a community takes on a big task (a building, a mission trip, an event sponsorship), the first big gift sets the tone and pace for the entire giving effort. It takes a lot of $50 gifts to match the first $5000 gift. We’re not just talking about the giving of individuals. We’re influencing the giving patterns of communities.
From a political perspective, there are two reasons I find all of this rather irksome. The first is that this is yet another way that people are proposing we avoid taxing the wealthiest people in the country at rates equivalent to the rest of us. The second is that this rhetoric is a favorite argument by people who disagree with the way churches “meddle” in politics. People have made these same anti-church arguments when the church got involved in civil rights, child labor legislation, women’s suffrage, and so on. They do not make the same arguments for other organizations: the humane society, environmental clubs, public health charities, higher education, and arts charities can lobby for legislation for animal rights, environmental protection, and public funding for education and the arts with minimal public outcry. It is fine for them to spend money on “evangelizing” and recruiting more members.
From a historical and theological perspective, I know some of my religious colleagues find this kind of reasoning about the economic value of churches rather crass. They like thinking of the church as the “Body of Christ” but not in terms of corporations (from corpus, “body”). The church had no 501(c)3 status in the Roman Empire, where it spread like wildfire, just as it has no privileged status in modern China, where it has thrived underground. That’s fine. I will concede the point that my giving should not be tied to some kind of tax benefit, that tithing should be a way of life for anyone, religious or not, who wants to be part of something larger than themselves.
But if we’re going to talk about budgets and priorities, then let’s actually think about the kind of place we want to live instead of just grasping at every possible source of revenue. When households face a financial crisis, short-sighted people first eliminate their charitable giving and later think about things like their cable bill. Those who understand that budgets are about priorities and character make sure that giving, saving, and spending are all part of their plan. Prioritizing giving helps us recognize how much we already have.
Everybody knows that Alabama is a red state, but back in the first half of the 1900’s it was red for a different reason: communism.
Birmingham was a steel town in an agricultural state. The mix of rural poverty and urban labor provided the perfect soil in which communism could grow. According to Diane McWhorter’s book about the civil rights struggle, Carry Me Home, in 1934 the Birmingham Communist Party claimed 1000 members. Birmingham was called “the reddest city in the country.”
The Good Ol’ Boy network of rich industrialists knew that the communists wanted to ally poor whites with poor blacks against the steel industry. (“Black faces and red necks” had two meanings: both miners and farmers, and blacks and whites.) The labor unions and New Deal supporters represented a threat to the industrialists’ privileged way of life. The industrialists hit upon a divide-and-conquer strategy and focused on two wedge issues: segregation and red-baiting. They allied themselves with the Ku Klux Klan and used domestic terrorism (like bombing) to intimidate labor organizers.
It didn’t help, of course, that some of the red-baiting was true. Many early civil rights advocates were on the far, far, left: Paul Robeson, Hosea Hudson, Helen Keller…
Yes, that Helen Keller.
Although I sat through what seemed like months and months of Alabama History in elementary school, and I distinctly remember watching “The Miracle Worker,” it seemed that Ms Keller simply disappeared after she learned to talk. I think I vaguely remember our textbook saying that she went on to be an advocate for people with disabilities, but there was never, of course, any mention of her being a socialist. It wasn’t until I read Lies My Teacher Told Me that I understood why her history had been sanitized: our famous Alabamian had gone on to become a founding member of the ACLU and an advocate of women’s reproductive freedom.
I visited Tuscumbia a few weeks ago for a wedding, and went into the town’s excellent independent bookstore. I picked up a book by Helen Keller (titled My Religion), and had an awkward conversation with the cashier.
Her: That looks like an interesting book. I’ve been meaning to read that one.
Me: Yeah, she was a fascinating woman. Did you know that she was a socialist?
(Conversation at the coffee tables behind me stops)
Her: …Huh. I never heard that before.
Me: Yeah. She even wrote poems in praise of the Boshevik revolution. But they don’t teach that in school.
I’d embarrassed her, without even thinking about it. I insulted a hometown hero. I’m such a doofus.
Anyway, it’s fascinating to think of how much history we attempt to expunge from our memories to fit whatever is currently socially acceptable. If we teach children that Helen Keller was a socialist, they might ask “why?” Then we’d have to talk about the fact that lots of workers were rendered deaf and blind in industrial accidents, and it was only because brave activists risked life and limb that today, workers have to be paid in real money instead of scrip, get time off, and are compensated if they get hurt. These activists were bombed, lynched, and shot because they demanded to be treated like human beings. They paved the way for the civil rights struggle that would happen decades later. (Say what you like about OSHA and various industry regulations: you wouldn’t want to work in a factory or mine of 100 years ago.)
We might also have to talk with children about the concept of “class,” and have conversations with them around questions like, “Are we really a classless society?” We might have to talk about why poor people in Alabama subsidize low property taxes for the wealthy by paying such high sales taxes, even on things like groceries. One of my pastor friends asked a state legislator if he thought it was unfair that Alabama has such a regressive tax system which proportionally takes more money from the poor than from the wealthy. The politician was incredulous. “How else are you going to get money out of the poor?” he replied.
How far we’ve come since Alabama was called “the most liberal state in the south!”
Of course, these days, even talking about such things can get you labeled a socialist, regardless of what your economic and political views actually are. Our history has much to teach us that we are reluctant to learn. Privileged folk in Alabama of the last fifty years have worked very hard to forget as much as possible, hoping that we can “move on” from our past. But as dramatic as our history is, the further you dig, the more drama—and relevance—you uncover. Red-baiting and race-baiting still go on today, of course, although their practitioners resist similar rhetoric connecting them to the Klan, or Nazis, or to the feudal landlords of the south. Scratch the surface, though, and you’ll see that there’s more than one reason this state’s politics are as red as its soil.
In my next post, I’ll talk about what this has to do with the church.
I spent most of yesterday morning with a formerly homeless man. He’s now in an apartment without a refrigerator or stove, or electricity or running water, but he has a roof over his head and a door that keeps his few possessions (relatively) safe.
We sat for a good hour in the Cooper Green pharmacy, waiting on his prescription to be filled. It was surprisingly crowded for a Monday morning. The pharmacy is a windowless room, about twenty feet square, with bad lighting, a blaring television, and four service lines. About twenty-five people sat on chairs or stood in the flickering fluorescence waiting for their number to be called. This is one of the places people who can’t afford much health care go to get their meds.
My friend was waiting on his insulin. He works at a car wash, but since it was raining he wasn’t working that day. He said that when it turns cold, the younger guys will stop showing up. He can endure the cold, he said, and he knew he would be working more come October and November.
As I looked around, I tried to guess the history of the other folks in the room. There were more than a few who were well-educated – I could tell from their dialect and their vocabulary. Most were clearly living in poverty. Everyone wore expressions that suggested they would rather be somewhere else.
I could tell that a few of them were in there because of bad lifestyle choices. They smelled of cigarette smoke and talked too loudly. I could see the signs of years of addiction on their weathered faces. But most were just tired.
After our pharmacy visit, I took my friend to a big box department store to get some work boots. Someone had offered him some weekend work clearing a fallen tree, but he had to provide his own steel-toed boots. Forty bucks. We also picked up some Ensure, because he said that he often had a hard time getting breakfast (having no refrigeration, in this day and age, is a problem if you want ready access to healthy food).
I took him to Jim & Nick’s for a diabetic-friendly lunch. Then we went to Family Dollar, because he needed some personal hygiene items. He bought a duffle bag to cary his supplies to and from the showers at the Salvation Army, just a few blocks from his apartment.
We spent most of the morning running errands, and we spent about $120 during our four hours together. And it occurred to me again, as it has so often in the past that it is expensive to be poor. The most valuable thing I provided for this gentleman besides the money was transportation in my car. If he had instead taken the bus, what took us a morning would have taken him days. That’s time that he would not spend looking for a better job, or educating himself, or reading and just enjoying life.
I thought about all the people in the waiting room, almost all of whom are there because they cannot call in a prescription to CVS and drive down and pick it up. I thought about the tremendous wasted economic and personal value that their time represents. Decent public transportation would help all of them, and everyone else in Birmingham as a result. Affordable preventive health care would help not only them, but my insurance premiums, because I wouldn’t be paying for as many of their emergency room visits.
I was also impressed, as I have been in the past, with this gentleman’s financial savvy. I tried to give him space to make his choices about the products he was going to buy, and I tried not to stand hovering over his shoulder so he could have some dignity and privacy. But I couldn’t help notice the way he was doing comparison shopping, squeezing every bit of value out of the budget we had agreed on in the past.
When we meet, I usually ask this man, “What would be the most helpful thing we could do right now for your goals?” And we talk for a bit about what he wants to do, and what would help him do it. Sometimes I’ll make suggestions or ask questions, but I generally figure he knows best. I did ask him awhile back if he had a savings account, and he informed me with some pride yesterday that he has one now, and he intends on socking away $25 each time he gets paid. He’s on a waiting list for some subsidized housing that includes utilities and comes with a fridge and stove – items which will make it less expensive for him to conduct the daily business of living and working.
Each time I willingly step into a relationship with someone who is poorer than I am, I have my world view shifted a bit. I already know it’s expensive to be poor, but when I think about what this guy goes through to get his insulin so he can go to work, and how he’s working his butt off to claw his way out of poverty, I admire him. He admits he’s made some bad choices, but now he’s making good ones.
As I drove home reflecting on my experiences, I turned on the radio. Some talk show guest was referring to my president as “the Food Stamp President.”
I turned the damned thing off. The man just has no idea.