Notes on MLK Jr

Martin Luther King would be 85 this year.
I wonder what he would notice about race in today’s world.  Certainly our president; perhaps that there are more public displays of diversity.  Casual racism, at least, is gauche and impolite.   There’s little disapproval for having friends of different ethnicities.  Certainly there’s a generational shift, and as those who grew up comfortable in a more racially divided environment die, I trust younger generations will find racism to be confused, unnecessary, wrong. 
I imagine he would still notice that the country still struggles with many disparities between whites and blacks.   Our country remains, for the most part, segregated.  Black men get incarcerated for non-violent crimes at a disproportional rate.  Many African-Americans struggle to build the generational capital that others take for granted.  And 2008 had a huge impact on black wealth throughout the country.  I suspect he would be outraged at the way some states are restricting voting rights.  Although there has been some improvement in the material conditions of many people, but others are still poor and the way out of poverty seems obscure. 
Race has had a very specific impact in the US.  It is certainly not the only country that has difficulties with rival ethnic groups (remember the Danes and the Saxons?  Just don’t get me started on the Picts).   But our political choices and conversations have usually begun and ended on our inability to come to terms with the consequences of our specific racial divide.  Defining who we are as a country is necessarily woven in with the narrative of racial injustice and the institutions that have protected white control of the political and economic process.   And we forget how recently most blacks lived in a country where they were repeatedly terrorized.
So what is to be done?  In the church, we have a role to build networks, tell stories and listen.  We remember that we were once enslaved by racism, but that there is a better world.  We will still build golden calves long the way:  we will wonder if the previous world was worth leaving.  But we have faith that building communities based on love and freedom is worth the struggle.   It means that sometimes the privileged learn to share; and the oppressed risk to speak; that our stories and desires are probably more tightly linked than we understand.  But it’s tough, for often the smallest differences that cause the greatest anxieties. 
How would we eliminate racism and injustice?  It’s hard to change hearts, but we could diminish the impact of racism in our country that are not based on race.  Such policies are expensive and currently politically unviable: full employment at a living wage, universally affordable health care, and excellent education would benefit everyone, and could certainly be paid for if we simply substituted our three wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and drugs with such investments.  This would not end the discomfort between the different, but it might mitigate the consequences when the rules are rigged.
So we celebrate Martin Luther King Day.  Let us remember this prophet, who died unpopular, who challenged us to stand and sing until our land rings with liberty, so that we may discover the promise of our God and of our native land. 

Chris Christie and the Decline of Political Virtue

There are rules in the political world.  Rules of honor and shame.  Rules of respect.

We respect the office that people hold.  Even if they are not our candidate, we may address them with their title, and allow them to do the specific role they were elected to do.

Tradition, custom, and law, guides us.

They can help us be gracious victors and magnanimous losers.  After an election, the loser offers their respect and sometimes support.  The victor acknowledges the campaign was hard fought, and both make a nod to the theater of politics.  They even call each other on the phone.  It’s politics, not war.

We should be disturbed when these customs, these rituals, aren’t acknowledged.  When Ken Cucinelli refused to call McCauliffe after the Virginia Governor’s race because it demonstrated an inability to depersonalize the political, to still see a human being outside one’s political party.

Christie didn’t want to just win, but to get total victory for election to New Jersey.  Not merely 51% but as much as possible.  I’m not convinced that’s the presenting legal issue, but it reveals a bit about our current political culture.   Nobody wants to lose, for the stakes are too high.  And nobody wants a weak victory, because that means negotiation with the opponent down the road.  These battles are great for the media, because we find these stories compelling.

When total victory becomes our desire, the rules of respect get broken.   Our public life suffers.  It is for this reason Chris Christie represents both an entertaining, but fundamentally destructive, symbol of our political life.

Let me admit I had a fondness for exactly what I find dangerous about his style of politics.   Since I deeply want a credible Republican party that believes in math and evolution, I was giving him a fairly long leash.  But overall, his open contempt for the traditions that make governing possible may render his own office to be ineffective.  Who would trust him now?

When he refused, for the first time in the governor’s history, not to approve the tenure of Judge Warren, he disrespected the traditions and roles that had preceded him, taking an expansive view of his own authority.  The Democrats, furious, asserted their own authority.  And thus, we identify another place where a breakdown of tradition resulted in a fairly needless political controversy.

Certainly no political institution or party is immune from responding hysterically to microscopic issues, from seeking public vindication to increase one’s political capital.  In part it’s because it’s remarkably difficult to address the challenges that are facing our common life effectively.  Outrage is remarkably easy for everyone.

But as the right loses their belief in custom and authority, they lose what makes make politics, and compromise, possible: a halt in the dynamic of outrage.  Burke’s understanding of conservatism and its attenuating habits was that it protects us from violence; the respect of traditions was a respect of people.  But Christie, I believe, benefitted from a media culture that found contempt appealing, and a conservative class that has a revolutionary base.

Admittedly, what I liked about Christie is what I liked about LBJ – a sense of his own power.  But unlike the 1960’s, private vindictiveness became public, and as our ideological points become polarized, compromise becomes a political liability.  I wouldn’t single out Christi here.

I enjoyed Christ’s forwardness. Perhaps, however, it was a veil to misdirect the public and a way to undermine his opponents.  He eagerly fed an avaricious public’s desire for simple good vs evil narratives: making his opponents seem uncooperative, simple and weak.  This has revealed how his own effectiveness depended upon identifying and punishing enemies.  To some extent, It’s the political game; but we need these counter traditions of respect, reverence and restraint to balance our impulse to outrage and to actually make legislation.

Chris Christie represents an overall decline of our political culture.  Yes, by nature, politics is messy, clean, and vindictive.  But this is why there are rules of respect given each person’s office and where effective politicians are forgiving and rarely hold a grudge.  Christie used his office, and his presence, to hold others with contempt.  We shouldn’t be surprised that his circle of advisers understood this as a legitimate way to govern.

The War on Poverty

It’s the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty.  Some would argue that we lost. There are still poor people.

Jesus did say they’d always be there.  But when I hear someone say, “well, the war on poverty was a failure,” I hear, “who gives a crap, anyway?”  But the faithful should remember:  we’re not off the hook (Matthew 25:31-46).

That there remain poor people does not indicate the war failed.  The small transfers in wealth did make a difference between misery and … less misery.  Surely the transfers did not cause people learn job skills or become financiers – but they do alleviate pain.

The programs implemented cannot replace some cultural and economic shifts that happened in the 1970’s.  Blacks who were gaining a foot hold in the middle class, did not acquire the wealth that whites did.  Their housing prices lagged even though they sought better opportunities.   Furthermore, good middle class manufacturing jobs were declining.  While we were alleviating poverty, we were still producing more poor people.

We forget that poverty has allies.  Poverty means a cheap labor market.  Some institutions benefit from the poors’ desperation.  It’s easy to exploit them and then blame them for their problems: just make sure, for example, all the markets around them are a little more expensive; charge them exorbitant fees for overdrawing.  Whereas the prosperous have room to make the occasional financial mistake, and can spend frivolously, the poor are penalized if they do not count every penny.   A beer, a gift, a small tax – each of these make a difference.

It’s difficult to admit there will always be some people who are dependent.  So we find remarkably ineffective, and expensive, ways to care for them, like prisons.  Although “Stop being poor” is our demand our lack of imagination ends up having us shut them in a jail cell where we foot the bill.  Why couldn’t we have built a school or paid them to beautify our cities?

Our own moralism, where we demand people “get a job,” is a useless way of solving the problem.  Such moralists don’t really know where the jobs are, nor would they hire the poors anyway.  Economists are quite aware of the problem:  there’s a gap between skills needed and the labor market.  We can’t snap are fingers and make hungry kids who can barely read into software engineers: even our great entrepreneurs usually had food on their table and some degree of stability.   So when I hear someone say “get a job” I also hear “you’re worthless, so why don’t you jut make your way to some labor camp and die.”  For the faithful, however, we say work is meaningful, but that does  still not determine God’s love for anyone or their intrinsic dignity.  God still loves the drunk. 

Last, the various programs were always meant to be a cheap alternative to a better solution: full employment.  A national program that actually financed the war on poverty as if it were an actual war might have been much more effective.  If we had spent the six trillion dollars we spent in Afghanistan and Iraq and instead provided the 12 million unemployed jobs at a middle class (about $75,000) wage for six years we would have strengthened the middle class.  The economic multiplier would have been enormous – because the unemployed tend to spend, the growth in GDP would multiplied at least ten times – and with such an expansion, we would have been able to balance the budget.  Ideally this would be part of rebuilding our massive infrastructure – construction remains one of the few industries that cannot be shipped overseas.  But we don’t have the political will, and it is far more expensive.  It’s easier to spend on war, and on a credit card.

Is there a dependent class?  Perhaps.  But I doubt we’re quite serious about getting people out of that “cycle.”  The poor are not organized – and many tend to vote against any sort of collective interest.  Occasionally you’ll find some poor person saying that they feel guilty for living on medicaid and food stamps. blaming some other person they know for being dependent.  They are ashamed of being poor, and many of them don’t like hand outs.  They’ll let themselves be punished because they’ve internalized the idea that they deserve their fate.  But the conservative class thinks they can just go out and start a business when they have no cash, no investors, and few skills.

We still have poverty, and we did fight a war.  But we thought we could fight it on the cheap.

Jesus, Survivor

From a Sermon, Christmas II, Matthew 2:12-19

Jesus was a survivor.

The wise men had reached Herod.   They are about to tell him that Jesus has been born, the Messiah, and this makes Herod, and all Jerusalem – hipster central, where all the good restaurants and cool kids reside – nervous.  For Jesus is a country kid who might challenge the king.    Herod asks the magi to find the child and tell him.

But after the magi visit, Joseph and Mary are warned.   And when the magi skip town, he is enraged.  And in the verses the lectionary skips over, Herod, infuriated, slaughters the children in and around Bethlehem.

It evokes another story: the child Moses escaping the law of the Pharaohs.    But also the other stories of destruction and survival.  Jesus would have remembered that story of survival.  He would have remembered the prophet Jeremiah.  And he would have remembered the scattering of the people of Israel after the Babylonian captivity.  Continue reading “Jesus, Survivor”

Consequences of the Decline of the Mainline Church?

I’m not sure if there is causal or correlative, but I wonder if there a link between the decline of the mainline church and:

1) Less political involvement

2) Higher levels of stress, anxiety and frustration

3) A decline in voluntarism

4) Higher rates of depression

5) Greater concentration of wealth

6) Balkanization of our social networks, by class, age and interest

I’m not sure of church is a “cure,” or what an antidote is.  On the other hand, our desires can now be more easily gratified.  We can avoid the difficulty of people in the flesh through the ease of people online.  But it seems that this merely has the impact of concentrating power in the hands of those who control the platforms to which we’ve become addicted.

Legalize It!

David Brooks goes off on marijuana this week.  He offers that don’t do as I did attitude that only the well-heeled can argue to the rest of us.  It’s another affirmation that the laws are there for the poors.

I support a regulated drug market.  The evidence is prohibition makes drugs more dangerous for communities, their users and the enforcement community.   Realistic, non-prohibitive drug policies are more humane and cheaper, reducing violence and giving addicts consistent opportunities to reduce their addiction at their own pace in a way that costs less.  Examples: Portugal and Denmark.  Example for the other side?  Mexico.

The argument should end there.

Drug addiction is a problem, but jails are the worst place to solve them.   They are the most expensive, least effective places to teach people to make meaningful alternative choices.  After all, no politician wins votes by spending more money on teaching “higher” values to felons.

David Brooks makes his argument by comparing higher vs drug addled happiness, but I think he is pretty limited in his understanding of “drug use.” I enjoy my coffee and gin on the day’s book-ends.  It has not stopped me from listening to Wagner or reading Proust.   Isn’t it possible that for some, the former is better high; and latter more comprehensible?  And I’m not even talking about their usage.

Don’t get me started on the drug use of artists like Coleridge and Basquiat.

The down and dirty problem is that the war on drugs has been a de facto war on poor, black families.  Whites and blacks use most drugs at the same rate; blacks, however, get the rap sheet.  Brooks avoided it.  Once a felony, then no job.  Then it’s working with other felons.  The drug conviction itself keeps them out of the labor force.  Legalization is not about “happiness.”  It’s about the ruined lives along prohibition’s way.

There are some non-race based policy changes that would diminish the impact of racism in our country.  One is affordable health care.  The second would be full employment.  The third comprehensive public education.  And last, ending the war on drugs.  This last one would liberate a substantial plurality of black men in jail.

Ending the war on drugs would be a fair way of reallocating our resources that would proportionately help those who have been disproportionally affected.  We’d free up our police forces to focus on violent crimes.  We’d not need to militarize them against drug lords.  And neighborhoods would be safer because people could get their high legally.

We’ve spent one trillion dollars on this war, and the demand has not stopped.

Prohibition is a waste of money.  Criminalization doesn’t work.

Legalize it.

Happy New Year!

Yesterday was the celebration of the Feast of the Holy Name.  The church says Jesus was circumcized on this date, affirming that Christianity is linked to Judaism, and that Christ had a history, a location, a culture.

For some this signifies the incredible.  Some would prefer God, or Jesus, to be a lot like a superhero.  In that case the story seems more like a comic book, a fantasy of the origins like the Green Lantern or The Hulk.  But the merit of the story is that we can’t get out of our historical context and cultural location.  Although we may feel righteous about who we are in our current context, we are always embedded and bounded.  For some this is a trap, a prison; but in another way it is a lot like gravity – without it, what kind of collisions would ensue?  Could we behave comprehensibly without the cultural knowledge we do have?

I often find that people are likely to judge the people of the past based on our contemporary morality.   But when we enter their judgement, we remain unaware of what they believed was truly at stake.  The cosmology of the ancients, their everyday experience of the world remains foreign.  I doubt that most of us would survive well even in 19th century America, not to mention 15th century England, 13th century Mongolia, 8th century France or 1st century Palestine.  We are learning much more than they did; and certainly we are not completely different emotionally, but those worlds are foreign places.  Our world has become both large and small – we intuit the cosmos, and yet it seems that the world as at our footsteps.

Holy Name reminds us that our God, by being embodied, works within our own materiality.  We may not necessarily name accurately who God is like.   Although it seems, however, as if we have implicitly limited God, we do not say that God cannot be placed in other cultures.  We still say we see God engaging any place where love is the primary form of grace. 

The good news is that the sources of liberation and hope we need are already here.  Discovering the sacred heart of God is not done just through becoming an expert; it is not done through becoming perfect; it cannot be except through the lens of our cultural context, the traditions and signs that are available.  For this reason, a theologian must identify the present symbols and signs  – the objects that convey meaning – and question them here.  People only experience the divine through the words and culture they inherit; the cross and the empty tomb reveals their worthy, if ephemeral, nature.