A Good Guy with a Gun

The NRA is fond of saying that the only way to stop a bad buy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

In this view of the world, ideally everyone is armed and we count on good citizens to make split second judgments about who is a good guy and who is a bad guy in order to keep us safe. How confident are you that you can tell good guys from bad?

I know I am a good guy, of course. That goes without saying really. (Of course to the rest of the world I am just one of those other people, a stranger.) As I know I am a good person, it follows that good people must be people like me. It is a natural part of being human to identify with an ingroup and to be afraid of “the other.”

Things get trickier here because there are an infinite number of ways in which a person can be like me or not like me, and they’re not all immediately apparent. I am helped, however, in deciding who is “like me” by social categories that I have been taught over and over.

A person with dark skin is “black” or “African-American” and is a different category from me. People from a different socio-economic class are in a different category from me. People from other countries are in a different category. People of other religions are a different category.

The undifferentiated “American”– the person who politicians address, is a white, middle class, straight, Protestant male. We know this because any other category must be specified to avoid confusion: “A Jewish American, Female voters, An African-American man.”

So when I– a good guy– go out with my gun vigilantly protecting the other good guys I will naturally cast my gaze with more suspicion on the Muslim American or the tough looking redneck or that group of Mexicans than on the white kid who looks like he might be part of my church youth group. I might not even consciously believe that is what I am doing. I just feel nervous around this person. Something is not right about him. I might be able to give you dozens of intellectual reasons besides race or social category why those “others” make me feel uneasy. When you’re a good guy primed to protect the world from bad guys, there is not a lot of nuance involved. You go with your gut. You react by instinct.

These categories are social constructs. This is not to say these categories do not matter. On the contrary, once we create them, they matter a lot. They can have very real, sometimes lethal consequences, as we have seen in the Zimmerman case. As long as we perpetuate them they have power over us. But the good news is that if we have the power to construct these categories, we have the power to take away their power as well, if we have the will. There was a time, for example, when the Irish would have been considered a separate race from whites, an underclass to be feared. We can change our categories, change our focus, change our culture.

And we must, because as Morgan Guyton expressed so well in his blog Mercy Not Sacrifice “if I feel unsafe around someone else because they’re black, I am part of the reason that the world becomes unsafe for them…The source of so much evil is people feeling unsafe and seeing others as threats instead of people who feel just as unsafe.”

One of the things I learned from reading The Geography of Thought by Richard E. Nisbett is that in the West when people read news stories they tend to attribute everything that happens to the players personalities. We immediately try to identify the good guy and the bad guy. In the East they are more likely to talk about the circumstances and context that created the situation.

Crimes are not only the result of a good guy encountering a bad guy. They are caused by two human beings in all their complexity, with good and bad traits, coming together in a way that causes conflict.

Let’s say I–we have already established that I am a good guy– decide to exercise my second amendment rights by wearing a sidearm to go pick up my third grader at school. Let’s say that a dedicated kindergarten teacher who has been armed and trained to protect the children spots me and my weapon and makes the split second decision that I might harm the kids. She shoots and kills me. If she has killed one of the good guys, (I know I am a good guy) does that make her a bad guy? What if I draw first and I kill her in self-defense? I am a murderer, am I still a good guy? Has my basic nature changed? What if children are caught in the cross fire? No one had the intention to do harm, but does that change anything?

The good guy/bad guy mentality does not help us. It makes all of us less safe. Put another way, we, as a society, need the tools to protect ourselves not only from the bad guy with a gun but from the good guy with a gun too.


(See also my earlier post On Senseless Violence)

Red Letter Law: Responsibilty in the Shade of the Trees

I came across an article today on a site called “Forward Progressives” with the provocative title “Religious Right Politicians Don’t Take Jesus Seriously.”  The article describes a theological debate that took place on the floor of the House of Representatives.  Putting aside, for the moment, the whole question of whether “what would Jesus do” should be part of our political debate in a country that separates church and state, I would like to speak a bit about the argument itself and the article on “Forward Progressives.”  Here is the background:

When the House Agriculture Committee decided that they gradually need to cut costs to the farm bill by $40 billion, they decided that more than half of that should come out of the mouths of poor families. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps) would be cut by over twenty billion dollars over the next decade.

In what appears to be a last-ditch effort by some members of the committee to inject some holy humanity into its more conservative members, Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA) quoted passages from the 25th chapter of the Gospel According to Matthew. It’s the part of the Bible where Jesus says that how we treat poor people, sick people, and other marginalized people is how we treat Jesus.

In response, Committeeperson and Christian K. Michael Conaway (R-TX) took umbrage.

“I take umbrage to that. I take Matthew 25 to mean me as an individual, not the U.S. government.”

First let me say that I think the word “umbrage” should be used more often in conversation.  Literally it means a shadow “especially as cast by trees.”  How it got its figurative sense of offense is not clear to this author.  But I am already trying to come up with opportunities to talk about having a picnic in the umbrage on a hot summer day.

Moving on.  I’m sympathetic to the argument that budget cuts should not come at the expense of the poorest and least powerful members of society.  I am also more sympathetic to the notion that Jesus would not cut food programs for the poor in order to fund tax cuts for the wealthy, but I can’t know that for a fact.

This is where I take a wee bit of tree shade with the Forward Progessives article.  The author of the piece (identified as “jasdye”) writes:

…generally conservative Christians tend to read the Bible literally. You know, like the Earth was created in six days type of literal. The Creation Story of Genesis is treated literally, but not Jesus’ words to his followers?

Conaway – and many others in the Religious Right – do not take these passages literally because they want to believe these words are advice to individual followers when it is obvious it was not spoken or written in that matter… In that very passage Vargas quoted, it is the nations that will be judged for taking care of or not taking care of the poor. Not individuals. Nations. Large communities.

Indeed, the passage does talk about nations.  It describes what it will be like when the Kingdom of God arrives.  The Son of Man sits on a throne and the nations gather at his feet, he divides the righteous on the right and the unrighteous on the left.  Then he explains how he has divided the two groups and he says one of the most marvelous things in the New Testament.

“For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me…when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!”

Treat every person, no matter how poor and powerless, as though he were the Son of Man.

In the next verse he condemns to hell those who refuse to do these things for “the least of these.”

Now if you are really going to be “the Earth was created in six days literal” about this passage, you have to say that it does not literally speak to Mr. Conway as an individual, nor to the United States nor to the world.  It speaks to the people in the Kingdom of God in this envisioned future.   Of course, that is not the full story.  If the stories contained nothing more than their literal meaning they would not have lasted.

The art is in the interpretation of this story.  What does it mean to us here today?  Why should I take this to heart?  There’s nothing at all wrong with Bible stories being a matter of interpretation.  It’s important to acknowledge that this is what you’re doing though because otherwise you get into a foolish argument in which one person says, “It means this.”  And the other says, “No it doesn’t. It means this.”  Both claim to have the correct interpretation. You can’t get very far with that.   That is, unless your goal is to continually argue.

So let’s strip down this story in Matthew.  The Son of Man in the story is addressing nations.  He is speaking to the world.  The story doesn’t actually specify whether the people at this gathering are condemned to hell based on their individual or their collective failure to help “the least of these.”

You could turn to history and say that early Christians were known for their collective works to the poor– acting, as later interpreters will call “the body of Christ.”  Jesus worked with his disciples, so there was always a collective, community feeling to his messages.  Even this does not specifically address governments.  Conway might interpret the “render unto Caesar” parable as meaning that the government is irrelevant and we need to act separately from it.

I can’t entirely discount the idea that Matthew 25 is referring to individual action.  Even though the Lord or Son of Man is addressing the people as a group, he may have separated them into the righteous and unrighteous based entirely on what they or failed to do as individuals.

So let’s for a moment say that Conway is completely right and Jesus’s requirement in Matthew to do for the least of these is an individual requirement not that of the government.

The argument here seems to be that the government has no moral obligation to act in accordance with what the Lord says is righteous.  This does seem to be a tacit admission by Conway that taking money out of the food stamp program  is not the righteous or compassionate course.

Taking money out of the food stamp program is not a problem, he says, not because it is the most moral choice, but because the government is not required to be righteous.  (The clear implication is that Conway does not think his favored path is the most moral one, but he thinks he should do it anyway for some reason.)  This is, obviously, a departure from how values conservatives talk about the government’s role in things like same sex marriage or funding Planned Parenthood, but I don’t want to dwell on that right now.

What concerns me more is the idea that in a democracy we, as individuals, will not be held accountable for the collective actions of the people we elect to govern on our behalf.  If we look the other way when unrighteous actions are carried out for our benefit are we not guilty?

So let’s take this premise as given and say we are not.  We, as individuals, will face no moral judgement at the pearly gates for what our government did or did not do for “the least of these.”

Mike Conway, however, is in a slightly different position than most of us.  He is in a position of power.  He has wealth and privilege.  What is his obligation as a Christian and a legislator?

Earlier in Matthew (Chapter 22) Jesus is asked what is the supreme commandment and he says it is “Love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.”  The second is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

These are the two things.  Devotion to God, and compassion for man. How is that manifest?  How do you do that?

This is what the Apostles did.  “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” (Acts 2)

When St. Paul met with the Jerusalem Council with his idea to spread the gospel to the gentiles there was only one thing they said the gentiles had to do. Paul wrote, “They only asked us to remember the poor—the very thing I also was eager to do.

So it seems that loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself means being generous with the poor, sharing all you have with them and specifically feeding them.  If this is how you manifest your love of God then you should do it with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind– with everything you are.

If this is an individual requirement then shouldn’t a member of the House of Representatives use all of the tools at his disposal, every power he has, to carry out this mission?  Should he ignore the greatest tool he has, his political position?

When the subject of wealth, poverty and Jesus comes up, one of the first stories that comes to mind is the one about Jesus and the rich young man who did everything right, except one thing:

Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

Mike Conway’s net worth is between $3,122,115 and $8,283,999.  (When you have a certain level of wealth it gets to the point that it’s hard to even count.)  He is the 62nd richest House member out of 435.

“I take Matthew 25 to mean me as an individual, not the U.S. government.”

What is his individual responsibility to the least of these? Will he sit on the right or the left hand of the Son of Man in the judgment day of Matthew 25?  That is between him and his God.

“Responsibility”… for What?

GrindstoneYesterday I was listening to NPR and the author of a biography of Margaret Thatcher was being interviewed.  He was clearly a great admirer of his subject. Asked what “Thatcherism” was he said, and I’m paraphrasing, Thatcherism was not a political philosophy, it was a way of thinking.  Thatcher, he said, stood for “responsibility.”

I was thinking about this and it occurred to me that this is not a completed concept.  You can’t stand for “responsibility” you have to finish the sentence.  Responsibility to what?

I got to thinking about classical literature and all of those tales about duty and honor.  I thought of something David Denby wrote about the Iliad in Great Books, “Accepting death in battle as inevitable, the Greek and Trojan aristocrats of the Iliad experience the world not as pleasant or unpleasant, not as good and evil, but as glorious or shameful.”

This is responsibility to your city-state, your people.  This military tradition of responsibility continues. It is an ethic of placing the good of the whole above your own personal needs.  Being willing to sacrifice even your life in defense of your society.

Religion presents another model of responsibility– responsibility to God, a commitment to living in accordance with eternal values even when this is personally difficult.  Ideally, religion is a model of people putting aside their own personal concerns and focusing on something larger than themselves and vowing commitment to treat other human beings with compassion.  Responsibility to God and fellow man.

Using the world “responsibility” without saying “to what” calls these types of commitments to mind.  It calls to mind the responsibility of a parent to child.

Yet when I think of Thatcher and Reagan it is a different kind of “responsibility” that comes to mind.  This is often phrased as “personal responsibility.”  It means that each person should take control of his own life, pull himself up by his bootstraps and make his own way. As the name suggests “personal responsibility” is actually a limiting of responsibility from society as a whole to one person.  I am responsible for myself, you are responsible for yourself.

In truth, there is no such thing as pure independence only interdependence.  The “trickle down” economic model implies that the business owner creates the jobs, but it is equally true that the workers make the business possible.

In Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton writes,.  “…for centuries, economic orthodoxy held that it was the working classes that generated society’s financial resources– which the rich then dissipated through their taste for extravagance and luxury.”

He traces the end of the view of wealth coming from the laborers as beginning in spring 1723 when a London physician named Bernard Mandeville published The Fable of the Bees.  Its premise, now very familiar, was that the wealthy by spending, allowed those who they paid to survive.  Wealth in this model is seen as flowing down from the top (trickle down economics) rather than growing up from the ground.

I have been reading lately about British aristocratic society in its period of decline at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th.  As aristocrats saw their position being challenged, many of them made passionate defenses of the hierarchy  that placed them at the top.  Many of the arguments they made came right out of the Fable of the Bees.  Titled aristocracy was necessary because by living their lives of luxury and power they provided work for those who worked for them.

Indeed, the aristocrats felt that this was a duty, a responsibility.  Society put them at the top and they had the responsibility to remain there in order to take care of those less fortunate.  Someone once wrote “Power justified itself by pointing to powerlessness in others as proof of incapacity.”  The poor needed to be cared for by the compassionate rich.

The notion of “personal responsibility” grew in the era of the “self-made man” but it had a slightly different meaning back then.  It meant,  “Don’t worry Lord Such-and-Such, I can take care of myself quite well, thank you very much. Your lordship doesn’t need to maintain that manor house on my account.”

Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is empowering when it means you have the opportunity to break out of rigid social hierarchies.  It is less empowering when it is used to explain why your boss does not have any responsibility to you.  “It is my responsibility to reduce costs and make the largest profits possible so that I can do my duty and create jobs.  It is not my responsibility to ensure that those jobs have living wages.”

A quote by Upton Sinclair comes to mind:

“…the priests of all these cults, the singers, shouters, prayers and exhorters of Bootstrap-lifting have as their distinguishing characteristic that they do very little lifting at their own bootstraps, and less at any other man’s. Now and then you may see one bend and give a delicate tug, of a purely symbolical character.. But for the most part the priests and preachers of Bootstrap-lifting walk haughtily erect, many of them being so swollen with prosperity that they could not reach their bootstraps if they wanted to. Their role in life is to exhort other men to more vigorous efforts at self-elevation…”

I read an interesting article yesterday on Work in Progress, the blog of the American Sociological Association’s Organizations, Occupations and Work section.  The article argues that as a greater share of national income has gone to profits rather than wages it has slowed GDP growth.

As Özlem Onaran explained in her summary of her ILO study, “mainstream economics continues to guide policy towards further wage moderation and austerity as the main response to the Great Recession. Mainstream economists and policymakers treat wages merely as a cost item. However, in reality wages have a dual role affecting not just costs but also demand.”

We can’t escape the fact that we are all in this together.   It is a world of interdependence, and mutual responsibility.



The image above is from the 1934 book “Wasn’t The Depression Terrible?” by O. Soglow.  It’s in the public domain and you can read it on line.  Many of the cartoons seem quite contemporary.


Mike Huckabee, Adam and Eve and the Symbolism of Fire

Mike Huckabee was on The Daily Show last night.  (I have spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to get the video to embed and I give up. Please follow the link.) During this segment Huckabee and Stewart discuss and debate a campaign ad that Huckabee made to bring out “values voters”.  It shows hot button political issues for Fundamentalist Evangelicals such as abortion and marriage being forged in metal in a fire.The two men debated the meaning and symbolism of the commercial.  (The full ad is in the clip.  Keep an eye out for a woman coming out of a voting booth and opening the curtain with her arms outstretched like Christ)  Stewart asked if the clip is saying that anyone who disagrees with Huckabee on social issues is going to hell.  A former Baptist minister, Huckabee insists that the forge is not meant to represent hell but is a reference to 1 Corinthians 10 and that any Bible believing Christian would catch that.

I think he may have meant 1 Corinthians 3, which contains the reference to the test of fire (I looked this up, I didn’t know it off the top of my head, in case you’re wondering):

If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

It argues for building one’s life on a firm foundation of faith which shows through one’s works.  (There are a lot of lines like the last one in Paul, incidentally, that suggest that everyone is saved, whether they do good works, whether they behave like saints or sinners and whether they believe or not. The thing with Paul’s dense writing is that it is hard to assimilate it all and certain lines seem to stand out as if written in neon depending on your personality, values and religious background.  Liberal Christians like the universal salvation lines in Paul.  Evangelicals like a lot of the guidelines for moral behavior.  Both are in there.  We all focus in on the parts that speak to us and make sense to us as fundamental values while barely noticing the others.)

As I listened to the two men argue over the meaning of the campaign ad symbolism, I couldn’t help but think that both of them were right.  I take Mike Huckabee at his word that for him this is a reference to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and it is about having a firm foundation and voting in a way that reinforces those values, among which he includes being against abortion and gay marriage.

On the other hand, he is optimistic if he believes that most Bible-believing Christians have taken the text of the Bible to heart as much as Huckabee has.  I have written about it elsewhere in this blog, but most Christians, even those who claim to follow the Bible literally have not read it and cannot cite chapter and verse.

Timothy Beal even used Huckabee as an example of an old-school Christian who is out of touch with how Biblically illiterate most of us are in his book The Rise and Fall of the Bible.  Beal writes about the Biblical references that Huckabee used in his speeches when he campaigned to be president:

National Public Radio’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty did a little Jay Leno—style research on the National Mall to see how many passersby recognized the candidate’s smooth stone and widow’s mite as biblical. One conjectured that the smooth stone might have something to do with war. Or maybe peace? None seemed to recognize it as biblical. What about the widow’s mite? A mite’s a bug, right? Maybe a spider? These responses were no great surprise to American religious historian Stephen Prothero, author of Religious Literacy. If Huckabee’s intention was to give a wink and a nod to his biblically well-versed base, Prothero told Hagerty, “It’s an exceedingly small target audience, about as small as the percentage of animals climbing on Noah’s ark.”

This is why I think Stewart is also right on this point.  Huckabee may have legitimately intended to refer to Corinthians, but the overall symbolism of the ad with the darkness and flame and the beatific woman emerging from the voting booth speaks to an audience who will largely not know that.  They will respond to what they see on the screen and will make natural associations between flames and damnation.  In fact, studies have shown that we respond more to the images in ads and news features than to the text.

An interesting side point– one that I didn’t notice until I went to look up the verse in Corinthians to quote it–is how citing chapter and verse is used to give a person authority and to stop an argument.  People don’t carry Bibles around to look things up.  So it is easy enough to say something like “Wearing red is a sin, it says so in Romans 4:26.”  It makes you sound far more knowledgeable about the Bible than the other person.  Also, even non-Fundamentalists, for some reason, tend to yield to a Bible verse.  It is hard to challenge the argument that goes, “It’s not my position, it’s God’s, ask him about it.”  Did Huckabee rattle off 1 Corinthians 10 instead of saying it is from First Corinthians (even though he was not that sure which verse it was from) in order to gain the authority of knowing chapter and verse, giving him the position of the Biblical expert, and thus lessening the force of anyone else’s interpretation of the text?

From here the discussion moves onto same sex marriage.  Huckabee insists that he is not anti-gay marriage he is pro-traditional marriage which is a “Biblical model.”  Stewart points out, quite rightly, that the Biblical model is polygamy.  Huckabee insists that this is not the case, that the only true Biblical model of marriage is Adam and Eve.

I had a lot of thoughts on this.  First off, the idea that supporters of “traditional marriage” are not anti-gay marriage reminded me of an excellent post I read yesterday The Distress of the Privileged on The Weekly Sift.  I recommend reading the whole thing.  The article, which uses the example of the film Pleasantville to illustrate the distress of those who feel their social privilege slipping away, quotes Wayne Self on the issue of marriage.
This isn’t about mutual tolerance because there’s nothing mutual about it. If we agree to disagree on this issue, you walk away a full member of this society and I don’t.
Being “pro-traditional-marriage” is specifically saying, “we do not want you to be part of this society.”

I found the Adam and Eve argument that the Bible supports our current cultural idea of marriage interesting.  First, what do we make of all of the Old Testament figures who had multiple wives.  Should we read Solomon as an example of someone living in sin?  He is traditionally held up as an example of wisdom.  What are the consequences of not living in a traditional marriage?  Is it going to hell?  If so, is Solomon in hell?  If he is not, what would the consequences be for expanding our definition of marriage to include same sex couples?

I have a lot of questions about Adam and Eve as the model for marriage.  Adam and Eve are also the symbols of defiance of God’s will.

If you have ever wondered why Fundamentalists spend a lot of time arguing against the teaching of evolution, because it contradicts the Bible and yet do not protest the teaching of linguistics as contradicting the story of the Tower of Babel, it is because Adam and Eve are central to their understanding of the meaning of Jesus’s sacrifice as atonement for original sin.

(The Tower of Babel doesn’t have a lot of impact on this story, although one could make an argument that it mirrors Adam and Eve.  God is jealous of the people for building this grand monument and he seems to be worried that they might become god-like.  So he makes them all speak different languages so they won’t be able to work together.  Thus the creation of different languages.  This is reversed– as Adam and Eve’s sin is reversed– by the Apostles in Acts when they are given the gift of speaking in tongues, that is they can communicate with people in their own languages.)

Were Adam and Eve married in the garden?  The argument that they were (as there is no wedding scene in Genesis) is based on the idea that when God created them for each other, he married them.  Did they need to be married with no other people from which to chose?  Could it have been being cast out of the garden that made legal marriage necessary?  Marriage is an agreement with society.  There is no society in the Garden of Eden.  Wouldn’t living the example of Adam and Eve in paradise be to get to a state in which unions are so perfect that they operate under the laws of God not the laws of the world and human legal contracts are not necessary to bind them to one another?

The Election Cost $6 Billion: What Else Could that Buy?

According to The Week, the estimated tally for the 2012 election when all is said and done will be about $6 billion.  Here are a few other things $6 billion could buy:

It could buy a storm surge barrier for New York City.

It could supply nearly half of FEMA’s annual budget.

It could provide 11 million public school students with free lunches.

It works out to about $45 per likely voter, so the campaigns could have bought each likely voter, say nine footlong subway subs.


Texas school districts need an additional $6 billion a year to get students up to the academic standards lawmakers have put in place, the Austin Statesman reports.

It is also the amount that New York City is requesting in hurricane Sandy relief.

It could build 451 small hospitals or 981 public elementary schools.

It could cover the federal funding for PBS for 13 years.

Political Message on Church Sign Controversy

From KENS News San Antonio:
LEAKEY, Texas — A controversy regarding a political sign prominently displayed outside a church is playing out in a small town west of San Antonio. Is it protected speech or political hate? And does it have a place on a church marquee? The sign reads, “Vote for the Mormon, not the Muslim! The capitalist, not the communist!” That marquee standing outside a non-denominational church has become the talk of the town in Leakey — about 90 miles northwest of San Antonio.

OK, first thought.  “Is it protected speech or political hate?” The reporter asks.  It does not have to be one or the other.  They are not opposites.  Political hate is protected speech.  No one needs to go out of his way to protect kind, loving speech.

Does it have a place on a church marquee?  I guess, if you think that is what your faith stands for, why not advertise it?  The church marquee is an opportunity to communicate what you’re about to outsiders.  Is this a stirring religious message?  Not in my opinion, no.  For some reason I find myself humming that Culture Club song “The Church of the Poison Mind.”

The sign was intended to say something about politics.  What it really tells you is something about this church and what it stands for.  It is a church that has no tolerance for its neighbor faiths (what would be wrong with being a Muslim if the president actually were one?) and that believes in a capitalist Jesus.  They do have faith though.  They are clinging to the idea that the President is a Muslim no matter what the facts are.  Who am I to say this is a strange form of Christianity?  We have freedom of religion in this country.  You can worship whatever kind of God you want. If you think God is judgmental and concerned with our petty politics, then you go write the stirring capitalist hymn.  I know I wouldn’t walk through that church door.  So if the pastor’s mission was to keep away anyone with a different point of view, job well done.  If the objective was to be featured in the news, job well done again.

Poverty and Purity Codes

This is a graphic that has been going around Facebook.  It shows the results of a Florida program that requires welfare recipients to pass a drug screening in order to qualify for benefits.  According to the graphic, 98% of those tested passed.  The program cost taxpayers $ 178 million.  The big tax savings to the state of throwing the drug users off welfare was $60,000.

The graphic made me wonder: If we were to require drug testing of wealthy people in order to qualify for oil subsidies, or a lower tax rate on capital gains than earned income, what would the graphic look like?  What percentage would fail the test and what would the savings look like?  Is it possible that a larger percentage of capital gains beneficiaries might be using drugs (cocaine on their yachts) than single mothers with minimum wage jobs do?  Is is possible that because of the amount of income involved that the tax savings might actually outweigh the program cost?

I was recently reading the book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg.  Borg spoke about the purity code that operated in Jesus’s time (which Jesus violated and protested by eating with tax collectors and the unclean).  The purity code went beyond a few rituals.  It provided an entire social and political system based on the notion of pure and impure, clean and unclean.

According to one purity map of the time, priests and Levites (both hereditary classes) come first, followed by “Israelites,” followed by “converts” (Jewish persons who were not Jewish by birth). Further down the list are “bastards,” followed by those with damaged testicles and those without a penis. Women who were made unclean monthly were low on the social scale. Behavior also played a role and certain occupations, such as tax collecting, made one an outcast.

So by now you’re probably wondering what all of this ancient history has to do with Florida drug testing.  It is this.  To quote Borg:

“The purity contrast also was associated with economic class. To be sure, being rich did not automatically put one on the pure side (and first-century Judaism could speak of rich people who were wicked), but being abjectly poor almost certainly made one impure.”

When I read this line it occurred to me that our society still operates on this type of a purity code.  Being wealthy does not automatically make a person “pure” but it gives the person the assumption of purity.  A rich person is assumed to be clean, well mannered, smart and moral until proven otherwise. A poor person, on the other hand, lives with the assumption of “impurity.”  His is assumed to be unintelligent, less capable, unclean and less moral until proven otherwise.

So why doesn’t anyone suggest drug testing in order to qualify for oil subsidies?  How far would such an idea go if someone proposed it?  What types of government funding and services should you have to prove you are moral and ethical to get?

(Reposted from my non-fiction blog Broke is Beautiful)

Representative Democracy Reimagined

I was reading G.K. Chesterton’s All Things Considered (which, incidentally, I highly recommend) and I came across this passage:

Allied to this question is the kindred question on which we so often hear an innocent British boast–the fact that our statesmen are privately on very friendly relations, although in Parliament they sit on opposite sides of the House. Here, again, it is as well to have no illusions. Our statesmen are not monsters of mystical generosity or insane logic, who are really able to hate a man from three to twelve and to love him from twelve to three… If our statesmen agree more in private, it is for the very simple reason that they agree more in public. And the reason they agree so much in both cases is really that they belong to one social class; and therefore the dining life is the real life. Tory and Liberal statesmen like each other, but it is not because they are both expansive; it is because they are both exclusive.

Chesterton was writing about early 20th century England, but his observation is every bit as true today.

The New York Times reports that the median net worth of members of Congress is about $913,000 compared to the $100,000 for the general population.

Nearly half the members of Congress are millionaires. In contrast, only five percent of the general population has a million or more in the bank. (Or stocks and so on.)

Rather than being a straightforward case of politicians being bought and paid for by lobbyists, they are influenced by what they are exposed to and who they associate with– other super rich people.

Under the current system, it takes huge boatloads of money to run a political campaign. That guarantees that most of the public will be represented by people from a different socio-economic status than their own.

I began to wonder what would happen if, rather than choosing our representatives geographically, we required them to represent us by tax bracket. After all, doesn’t a laborer in California have more in common with a laborer in South Dakota than he has with a millionaire in his own state? Doesn’t a Texas oil baron have more in common with a Wall Street billionaire than he has with a waitress in his own state?

What do you suppose our congress would look like if we had an electoral college, not for states, but for socio-economic groupings? What types of laws might we have? How would our national priorities change or would they?

(Originally posted on my non-fiction blog Broke is Beautiful)

A Review of Upton Sinclair and The Straw Man of “Religion”

There is a benefit to being a broke person who was given a Kindle for her birthday. Not being able to afford to buy new titles for it has given me a much needed excuse to read up on my classics.  Many 19th and early 20th century titles (and older) are available for free download.  Nothing like soaking up the prose of the 19th century Oscar Wilde on a 21st century technology.

Thus I found myself reading Upton Sinclair’s “The Profits of Religion,” which drew me in with its introduction about the religion of “bootstrapping,” that is, rich people telling poor folk to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  It is every bit as relevant today as when he wrote it.

Sinclair is a passionate and articulate advocate, and I enjoy his rhetoric on behalf of working people and against social inequality. The main thrust of his argument, however, is that religion, as it now exists, (or more accurately as it then existed) is nothing more than a tool used to keep the oppressed from rising up against a wealthy class that the religious leaders represent.

It is an argument that I might have found compelling in my youth. In fact, when I was in high school I wrote a cheeky essay on how the church was a big business that was interested in protecting its profits. It was full of quotations and clever arguments, and I got an A on it in my English class. So in arguing against Sinclair, I am also arguing against my junior year self.

Sinclair makes the mistake of assuming that there is a single entity in the world called “religion.  Unlike many socialists of his time, he does not argue for the abolition of religion, rather he believes that the inauthentic religion of today can be replaced with a new religion of justice and equality that mirrors his socialist idealism.

He imagines that all religion is in the business of making money and consolidating power, while the religion of social equality does not exist now, only in a utopian future. Of course the reality is much more muddy. Religious organizations modeled on the ideal of social justice exist along side churches that encourage support of the status quo.

“Religion” is always an easy target for its detractors.  I find that religious zealots and religion debunkers often come at it with the same quest for absolute answers and certainty, things that exist so rarely in human interactions.

Those who argue that religion is a force for evil tend to make a list of grievances like jihads, the inquisition, and treasure rooms at Catholic churches in the midst of poverty.  The faithful counter that religion is the source of some of our greatest art, a wellspring of our understanding of the divine, and a comfort to people in their times of great need. They are both right.  Religion is all of that.  Either side is selective and disingenuous if it ignores the other.

Sinclair does make nods to this dual nature of religion, but his overall thesis is that religion is a tool of society used to enforce inequality.  He casts the ministers, rabbis and preachers of all faiths (Buddhist monks do not escape his scrutiny) as acting entirely out of self-interest, seeking financial support of their leisure on the backs of people who labor physically.

Religion certainly can be a tool to enforce inequality.  It can also be a force to fight for social justice.  Whatever its function, most people who participate in a system do not do it in full consciousness of the system they are supporting.  They participate for their own reasons which are a mixture of the self-serving, the benign and even the alturistic and good.  I prefer to give clergy the benefit of the doubt that they have chosen their profession out of a desire to do good.

Sinclair paints a picture of people victimized by their financial support of the church and its ministers, but there is another way to read this.  They give to their churches to support a community of which they are a part.  It is how that community functions that determines whether that relationship is beneficial or exploitative.

To argue against “religion” as an entity without talking about the specifics of religious belief, practice and community organization, is like arguing against “politics” without talking about what the specific government policies are.  Or, rather, to argue against “politics” by making a list of all of the worst offenses by political systems and using that as the definition of the word.

I see a danger in the straw man argument about the evils of religion.  By making “religion” the problem we let ourselves off the hook.  The assumption is that if we only stopped giving religious leaders power over us, we would become perfectly rational and conflict free human beings.  We would not allow ideology to trump our better instincts.

The truth is, every community creates its own language, ideologies and sacred cows.  Every office has its office politics and its mission statements and its unspoken rules.  Certainly you do not need God to have powerful elites justifying and protecting their positions of privilege.

Free market fundamentalism is an ideology that has demonstrated itself to be highly resilient and to have all the force of a religious movement.  While it is not averse to putting religion into service for its own needs, it is not a religious belief in itself. Yet it has its own language, its own heresies and its own patron saints in the form of Ronald Reagan and the atheist author Ayn Rand.  Belief in American exceptionalism or the American Dream are no less powerful than a “my god is better than yours” faith.

In his closing chapter, Sinclair argues not for the complete abolition of religion rather the creation of a new religion that will dominate society “the Church redeemed by the spirit of Brotherhood, the Church which we Socialists will join.”  Such a thing could only be accomplished if the word “religion” meant one thing, if all of the people of the word practiced it and could change their practice to something else.  I am attracted to his egalitarian vision and his love for the concept of a religion that would reinvent the world even if I find his logic overly simplistic.

As long as we are social creatures we will form communities.  We will create definitions of what it means to be “inside” and what it means to be “out.”  This does not mean that communities and cultures are bad.  It means that they have good and bad qualities like the people who compose them.  Overall, getting along with other people in society seems to be more rewarding than living as hermits.

Politics and religion are two ways in which we organize ourselves in society.  Because society is made up of human beings, our institutions are as messy and contradictory as we are.

The question should not be whether organizing societies of belief or nationality is right or wrong.  Rather, given that we are by nature social creatures, we should ask how we can do so in ways that maximize our potential for good and minimize our potential for evil.