Archive for the ‘social justice’ Category

Christian virtue and the “wider world”

Something that’s been on my mind for a while now is the subject of Christian witness — virtue, character — and its relationship (reaction to, impact on) “secular” society.  Do people of faith really have anything significant to add to efforts for peace and justice when so many of the non-faithful are already out there in the trenches? I say we do. In fact, I maintain that the struggle for human rights and justice are based in issues of faith — the world is not as it should be, humans have dignity and beauty, we should seek to bolster the well-being of others, love, etc.  I’m not entirely convinced that humans would come to these conclusions were it not for faith and religion.

This is (partly) the argument N.T. Wright makes in his new book, After You Believe. The following passage gets us down the path a ways in the discussion of Christian witness in “secular” societies:

Those who are called to reflect God’s image through their own work must give attention to the task of working out, in a highly contested contemporary world, what that restorative justice ought to look like and how we might help bring it about. This will mean engaging with political debates and processes of various sorts, campaigning on key issues, and highlighting oppression and injustice wherever they occur. The Western world has supposed, for two hundred years and more, that splitting off questions of social justice from questions of God and faith would give us a more just society. The revolutions, totalitarianisms, and all-out wars of that period have proved us wrong. But to put God and human justice back together again will require a sustained effort, not only by individuals but by the church as a whole, developing the corporate virtues of justice-work that will become habits of the church’s heart and will appeal to the conscience of the wider world. (Wright, p. 231)

Put another way, to eliminate religious speech and expression from the public square (as we’re seeing in many European countries) is to cut off the branch on which human rights rest. Christian witness has a place at the table in conversations about justice and the betterment of society. A crucial place.

Trickle-Down Justice

A friend of mine and I ate breakfast together today at our favorite cafe, as we do every week.  Our part of the neighborhood is seeing an influx of young, urban professionals — “climbing the professional ladder,” as my friend put it.  Broadly speaking, these folks are well-educated and left-leaning, with entrepreneurial personalities.  They know how to have a good time, and local shindigs — beer dinners, meet-and-greets, and other social events — are frequent.

There seems to be a disconnect, though, in the lip service paid to acts of justice / social action and the direct work they do with their hands. (the mentoring, the tutoring, the serving)  I could be missing it altogether, but I haven’t seen it.  Lack of time seems to be a major factor here.

But almost unanimously, these folks will vote on Tuesday for Obama, whom they believe has the best policies to help the poor.  But with the apparent lack of direct service with the disenfranchised, you might call their social philosophy “trickle-down justice.”  This is ironic, given the ideological differences between these neighbors and the Reagonomics (trickle-down economics) now espoused by conservatives in America.  “If I vote for Obama, he’ll set the policies into motion that will help my neighbors.”  I’m certain that in most cases, this isn’t intentional or malicious (and many of them would resent my accusations), but it is something I’ve noticed.

Trickle-down anything is not enough.  We, ourselves, must touch … serve … interact with the “least of these.”

Christian Politics, round 2

We must see what is going on today. Something different is happening. We have wasteful technologies used by billions of people growing exponentially, more expansive exploitation, more powerful bombs. And yet people’s hearts are the same as they were thousands of years ago: a chaotic mix of love and hate, creativity and destructiveness. But this is the problem. Our tools have “advanced,” but we haven’t advanced spiritually or morally. And so we, normal people, with the tools of destruction and wastefulness available for daily purchase, cannot handle the power. With all of the destruction that has ravaged the earth since the Industrial Revolution, one wonders if we can even call it advancement. Those who are convinced that we are at “the end of history,” at the apex of civilization’s development, fail to notice that the twentieth century was the bloodiest and most toxic in world history. And to sanctify this chaos, as our friend and priest Michael Doyle has said, the church’s precious words have been co-opted for profit: trust, fidelity, mutual equity. We can see them all around us in bank statements and on billboards.

Maybe, as a response, we in the church work for legislation that attempts to turn the tide, but these efforts often do not change the way we, as communities, live or think. Addressing our needs versus our wants and making sacrificial choices to buy less or differently is not something the state can do for us. We can see one reason why Jesus exorcized unclean spirits and opened eyes — the state wasn’t doing it. It’s the small things we do every day — the logs in our eyes — that are of great significance. (Even worse, in the face of escalating tension in the world, after 9/11 the government called us not to be frugal and thoughtful but to go shopping. One wonders if a nation that wholeheartedly buys into this scheme while launching two costly wars should have dangerous weapons anywhere near them.) We might hope to change the world through better, bigger programs to stop global warming, but global warming will not end unless people become less greedy and less wasteful, gaining a fresh vision of what it means to love our global neighbor. (Jesus for President, Claiborne & Haw, pp 192-193)

Another example of this is the civil rights movement.  Yes, I know many use civil rights to justify political action in order to remedy social injustices.  But have things really gotten better?  Sure, blacks can now use the same drinking fountains and bathrooms and attend the same schools as whites, but what about the racial tensions that remain?  Segregation still exists, people.  Today, we have thousands of ghettos full of millions of minority families struggling just to find their next meal, and we tell them that it’s solely their fault that they’re in this pickle. Desegregation led to white flight which led to suburban sprawl …

Did the civil rights legislation (I’m talking about the rulings here, not the peaceful demonstrations and prophetic words of folks like MLK) fix the human problem of racism?

And what about the other issue commonly used to defend political action: slavery.  Sure, whites don’t chain black people to each other and force them to work our fields anymore in America, but has slavery really been abolished?  What about the sweat shops in developing countries owned by American corporations?  What about the sub-human working conditions of immigrants across this great land of ours?  What about the turmoil those aforementioned minority families must go through in order to make enough money to survive?

No, slavery hasn’t ended … it’s just been reconfigured, cleaned up, outsourced.

Until we begin to view and treat others as our neighbors — loving them as ourselves — we won’t see permanent solutions to these problems.  I know one thing is for certain — no political legislation is going to enact this change.  Only the love of Christ, “made flesh” in radical communities across the world who are joining God’s redemptive work in the world, can.

my political journey

mccain and obama

If you haven’t noticed, 2008 is an election year.

(Some of you just muttered to yourself, “So that’s why they keep showing that toothy guy and old man on the news!”)

A certain excitement surrounds presidential elections.  Much of it is media-induced, as was evident by the earlier-than-ever start to the primary season (summer 2007).  But a lot of it is, I think, a genuine yearning in the hearts of Americans to start fresh, wipe the slate clean, or move in a new direction.  That’s why every candidate in the race is using buzz words like “hope” and “change” and “new direction.”  I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t more than a little caught up in the political fever myself.

But I’ve come to a point where I can no longer attach any of those adjectives — hope, change, etc — in their deepest, truest meanings, to the political process.  Though I am still a deeply political person, I refuse to be political in the way we are told to be political — by voting, by supporting one of two major parties, by pushing for legislation, by seeking to leverage my own power and strength.

It hasn’t always been this way, however.

My parents raised my brother and me to be good Democrats.  We denigrated Reagan economic policy around the house and rooted for Dukakis to defeat George Bush and the Republican machine in 1988.  The 1990s were political glory days around our house … Bubba could do no wrong.  He was a guy to whom my dad, who has spent much of his life in Arkansas’ neighboring Memphis, could relate.  In his smooth, Southern accent, he spoke of compassion and peace and health care for all Americans.  Even Clinton’s legal woes with Watergate and Monica-gate didn’t diminish the big guy’s celebrity around the house.  Heading off to college, I had received more than my fair share of political indoctrination — not in a heavy-handed way, but in the subtle way parents pass along their own ideologies to their kids.  Needless to say, I went off to college in Texas with my mind made up about whom I was going to vote for in the 2000 election.

al gore mask

In fact, when I arrived on campus at my overwhelmingly Republican university, I immediately joined the tiny but faithful College Democrats club.  At the first meeting, I was even selected to serve as the vice president during the 2000-2001 year.  That election year, we would show up for debates against the College Republicans (a veritable machine on campus…), sign folks in town up to vote, attempt to broaden the debate on campus from just two issues dealing with sexuality to issues of justice, the environment, and the economy.  Looking back, this snot-nosed freshman really didn’t know what the heck he thought about much of anything, certainly not enough to deserve the VP position in the college Dems.  I think I was more concerned with being different from my “war-loving, vitriol-spewing, poor people-oppressing, trust fund baby” (my perhaps misguided thoughts at the time) Republican friends.  (you should have seen my Al Gore Halloween costume, though…)

I think we all remember what happened in the 2000 election.

“Projected Winner: Al Gore” … oh, wait.  Hanging chads.  Gore wins the popular vote.  Florida Supreme Court.  Bush wins, weeks later, by a hair.  Gore cries (has he stopped?).

We were all devastated.

Most of our friends were electrified.  A Texas boy had made good and gotten to the White House.  Bush’s supporters at the university that gave him an honorary degree (along with Charlton Heston) could finally say they knew him when…

I developed a much more robust personal political philosophy over the next few years, primarily because I had so much material to work with.  Right out of the gate, George W. Bush’s cowboy attitude just rubbed me the wrong way.  (and as a writer, the Bushisms annoyed the heck out of me!)  Then came 9/11, which I helped cover for the school newspaper of which I was a member, and the political poo hit the fan.  We were staging an all-out retaliation in a country that had little, if anything, to do with what happened to us on that Tuesday morning in New York.  America’s leaders, led by Bush himself, took a page from the Toby Keith school of foreign policy and threatened to “put a boot in the ass” of anyone who crossed us.

Patriotism was also at an all-time high.  One could see flags everywhere, and often they were accompanied by pithy statements like “These Colors Don’t Run” or “Freedom Isn’t Free.”  Even many so-called progressives rallied behind the flag and our president and supported returning the slap that Islamic terrorists had given us.  Through all this flag-waving, though, I kept thinking, “What about the Afghan children?  Are they less precious than our own children?  Is our own ‘homeland security’ more important than Afghanistan’s?”

iraqi child

Then we invaded Iraq.  The rationale never quite squared with me.  Tension had been building for months over supposed WMDs inside Iraq, but to date, none had been found.  Then came Dubya on the TV set during primetime saying we had begun a “shock & awe” attack on Baghdad in an effort to free the Iraqi people from tyrannical Saddam Hussein.  No mention of WMDs.  There was, however, some connection made to what happened to us on 9/11, but I couldn’t (and still can’t) see how any of that rationale adds up.  All I saw was an emboldened empire seeking to expand its reach using military might.  It was way beyond retaliation at this point … this was pre-emptive war.  I saw it then and I see it now. (photo credit: David Leeson, 2003)

The night of the shock & awe campaign, I wrote an editorial for the school newspaper applauding the US for attempting to root out Saddam quickly and without much collateral damage.  A quick in and out procedure.  Five years and 60,000 deaths later…

These events, as well as the ongoing war, kick-started my disillusionment with the tactics of the U.S. Government in foreign policy.  I began to see that the American project doesn’t exactly square with my primary identity as a citizen in God’s kingdom, and that both political parties (not just one, as I’d previously thought) were guilty.  Sure, the parties talk a good game with regard to justice and values, but in the end, the status quo must be maintained.  (which means people around the world and right under our noses are squeezed to the margins or destroyed)  These realizations were further underscored when I began investigating the un-reported intimidation, extortion, dishonesty, and even murder US officials were committing around the world to bolster the wealth and power of the nation. (John Perkins’ memoir, “Confessions of an Economic Hitman,” was especially eye-opening)  This is about when I began referring to America as an Empire.  That’s right, empire — like Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Great Britain. (watch this video if you’re not convinced)

Indeed, the lily-white history of the United States I received in elementary school was, for the first time, in question in my mind. As my eyes were opened to the reality that my fellow countrymen and women were killing my brothers and sisters in Iraq and Afghanistan while the American church stands behind such action — even cheering it on — a new light was shed on how the last 200 years or so have proven to be a slow march toward empire-building for America.  In light of these realities, how could I comply with the political system, as is?  How could I put any hope in a system that, at its very essence, places nation over the Cross?  Furthermore, how could I continue to support candidates and parties that support economic systems that run counter to God’s economics policy of Jubilee?

In the 2004 election, my wife and I placed opposing votes in Texas in order to cancel the other’s out.  This was our first act of political subversion, albeit largely insignificant. It was, however, significant for us personally, setting us on a pathway of deepening our identities as citizens first and foremost in God’s kingdom, not man’s.

For the last four years, my political theory — in light of my theological convictions as a follower of Jesus — has been shaped and formed, and the writings of Yoder, Hauerwas, Wright, Claiborne, and others have impacted me greatly.

Many have traded the political ideologies of the Religious Right (a failed experiment) for more progressive political views, still informed by faith.  Leaders in this movement, which include Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo, among others, have correctly called Christians to broaden their view of justice and righteousness from a couple sexual issues to include the environment, poverty, economic disparity, consumerism, and peace.  In many ways, I have these thinkers to thank for sparking the conversation about the problems in the current political system and foci among Christians.  I have come to see, however, that these leaders are still calling for participation in the politics of Empire in order to attain societal justice.  And while the movement claims to be “non-partisan,” anyone with their eyes open can see that it has become the Christian Left.  And because the Left is just as hell-bent as the Right about maintaining and expanding empire, maintaining a consumerist economy, and waging war, I cannot with a clean conscience adhere to this movement. (though I consider many who do my friends)

I just finished Shane Claiborne & Chris Haw’s new book, Jesus For President, which to a great degree spells out where I’ve come politically.  It’s the book I would have liked to have written.

the lamb

JFP maintains that Jesus was in fact political (it is a common misconception that he wasn’t), but not in the conventional way of the time.  He subverted the Roman Empire with his words and deeds and even the names people ascribed to him, which were all dripping with political irony and meaning.  He continually established and underscored his own kingship (not Caesar’s), and promised that true, sustainable change would occur when people fix their eyes on Jesus and join Jesus in the work of reconciling all things. A thorough and open-minded reading of the Gospels sheds light on this convincingly, I think.  So it’s not a question of whether Jesus-followers are to be political, but how this is done.  (more on this in the days to come)

Furthermore, God knew that too much power in the hands of sin-proned humans was a dangerous thing.  (see the Old Testament for example after example)  Yet the cries of the people — “We want a king!” — prevailed, and God gave them over to their wishes.  (with a not-so-subtle warning, of course)  Today, millions of Christians are yelling, “We want a king!”  Their ideal king may have an (R) or a (D) after his name, may make promises that fit their values to a T, and may in their minds hold the last hopes for a just and righteous society, but in the end, the candidate is an imperfect, frail human.  And I’ve said it before, but I’m convinced that the office of President — or state rep, senator, congressman, mayor, or any political office — shapes the person much more than the person shapes the office.  In the end, Barack Obama and John McCain will be just as interested in Empire-building and war-mongering as any other president who has come along.  The machine simply cannot be stopped.

So this is where I’m at politically.  I want to stand with the poor and marginalized now more than ever, but I don’t believe the voting booth is where I should stand.  I want to see God’s “kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven” now more than ever, but the Empire — with its penchant for war, expansion, wealth-creation, and being first (Jesus told us to be last) — is diametrically opposed to this dream.  God’s peculiar people must continue the work set forth by our brothers and sisters throughout history to affirm that only God can create a new reality, establish justice, and sit on the throne — as King.

Using Jesus For President as a guide, the next few posts will focus on ways the people of God can be more political than ever, while not bowing to the idols of nation or investing in a broken political system.  It can be done, but as Claiborne and Haw (and Brueggemann before them) say repeatedly, it’s going to take an ample dosage of “prophetic imagination.”

12 marks of “new monasticism”

  1. Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire.
  2. Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us.
  3. Hospitality to the stranger
  4. Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation.
  5. Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.
  6. Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate.
  7. Nurturing common life among members of intentional community.
  8. Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.
  9. Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life.
  10. Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies.
  11. Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18.
  12. Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.

(Source: “12 Marks of a New Monasticism“)

Lives of Justice

There exists in Boston a group of [for the most part] young Christians who meet regularly to pray about, strategize about, and organize a “Christian movement in Greater Boston more deeply aware of injustices and capable of responding through service, learning, and advocacy.” I’ve blogged about this group before — about how blessed we have been to have found a network of like-minded believers, and about how God seems to be leading us to make changes in us first.

Of course, the rationale for followers of Jesus to live lives of righteousness and justice (often synonyms in the Bible) is extensive, and (in my opinion), off the table in terms of discussion. We are to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, those without a voice. Period. And we have come to the conclusion that “charity” is simply not enough — we must lead lives that seek to minimize hurt in our world and allow our hearts to be broken by what break’s God’s heart (as Tony Campolo says).

This is especially hard in America, whose capitalistic economy is driven by low prices, competition, mass production, and “the American Dream.” In this system, the poor of the world are used to produce, grow, build, or distribute for the very wealthy, while nine times out of ten remaining poor. We should know this when we shop at a big-box retailer for our groceries, pump $3/gallon gas at Exxon, assemble a baby’s crib, or eat at a fast food restaurant. Our most mundane decisions affect people all over the world, because we’re at the top of the “food chain” (so to speak) and many of those below us … well … work for us.

At our last meeting, the BFJN Global Poverty Action Team presented 7 commitments they were proposing for our network to live lives that leave a “smaller footprint” on the poor and on our natural resources. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Purchase fair trade coffee and gifts
2. Purchase and use sustainably harvested wood products [and we were delighted to find out that both IKEA and Home Depot are socially conscious in this way]
3. Don’t buy bottled water
4. Donate to locally based (meaning in the affected nations) development organizations
5. Shop at thrift stores for clothing
6. Fast from meat
7. Fast and donate the money you saved to a development organization, and use that mealtime for spiritual reflection and service

Oh, and instead of buying the “person who has everything” another piece of junk they don’t need this Christmas, how about planting a tree in Uganda in their name … which is cared for by a poor village … which receives money from The Kibo Group … that sends more Ugandan kids to school …

Obviously these are just a few of the many ways we can begin to live more just lives. We can lobby our government if we want to, but ultimately, change begins with each one of us.

political (un)involvement: part deux

OK, so I rail against political involvement the other day on this blog, and then I read two very challenging passages from two very challenging authors that made me think again. What’s a guy to think?

The Irresistible Revolution.jpgFor those of us who grow instantly nauseated at the mention of the word politics, maybe we can break it down a little bit. The English word politics derives from the Greek word polis, as in “metropolis” or “Indianapolis.” The word is rooted in the concepts of “city,” “civil,” “citizen,” “civic,” basically what it means to be a society of people. Anything involving humans living together purposefully is political, a polis. As the people of God, we are building a new society in the shell of the old, a new polis, the New Jerusalem, the city of God. This is essentially a political act. Without a doubt, envisioning the radical countercultural values of God’s kingdom is by its essense political. Imagine the Gospels with every mention of king, kingdom, Lord, Savior, crowns, banners, and thrones (all words from the imperial lexicon) all edited out. A gospel that is not political is no gospel at all. The root of the word allegiance means “Lord”; that’s exactly what the early Christians were executed for, for pledging an allegiance to another kingdom, another Lord — treason. In 2004, as the presidential election rolled around, many of us studied the Scriptures and considered what it means to claim Jesus as Lord, or as president. When people asked who I was voting for, I would say, “My president has already ascended the throne and has already delivered the State of the Union address. I don’t believe that God needs a commander-in-chief or a millionaire in Washington, and I have little faith that either of the likely options will incarnate the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, and the fruit of the Spirit. I will declare my allegiance from the mountaintops, joining the chorus of the saints and martyrs. And I will raise the banner of love above all flags.” After all, we vote every day by how we live, what we buy, and who we pledge allegiance to, so I just resolved to write in my vote, as I did not find it on the national ballot. And I was determined not to let my vote be confined to a private booth, secret ballot, or taboo conversation.

–Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution

Secret Message.jpgI’ve become convinced that although Jesus’ message was personal, it was not private. I’ve been convinced that it has everything to do with public matters in general and politics in particular — including economics and aid, personal empowerment and choice, foreign policy and war. The fact is, Jesus called his message good news, intself a public term that evoked the political announcements of the Roman emperors. When they would win an important military victory, they would send out messengers to announce good news. Caesar Augustus, for example, who ruled the empire from 27 BC to AD 14, articulated his good news in this inscription found in Myra, Lycia: “Divine Augustus Caesar, son of god, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and savior of the whole world, has brought you peace.”

I’ve become convinced that if the good news of Jesus were carried in a newspaper today, it wouldn’t be hidden in the religion section (although it would no doubt cause a ruckus there). It would be a major story in every section, from world news (What is the path to peace, and how are we responding to our neighbors in need?) to national and local news (How are we treating children, poor people, minorities, the last, the lost, the least? How are we treating our enemies?), in the lifestyle section (Are we loving our neighbors and throwing good parties to bring people together?), the food section (Do our diets reflect concern for God’s planet and our poor neighbors, and have we invited any of them over for dinner lately?), the entertainment and sports sections (What is the point of entertainment, and what values are we strengthening in sports?), and even the business section (Are we serving the wrong master: money rather than God?).

–Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus

What do you think?