Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The False Promise of Personal Charity

Some people say that the best way to address poverty is through personal charity. They say we should not involve the government when trying to help struggling neighbors.

They say it's because the government is inefficient and impersonal. They argue that government programs "force" people (through taxation) who do not want to help, thereby creating resentment and undermining the development of their conscience. You shouldn't force someone to do charity any more than you should force someone to go to church, they would argue. The desire has to come from within. Their point is that the poor are best served by individuals who are personally moved by compassion to assist them directly.

I've heard this line of reasoning over and over. It fails on many counts. First, there's a common sense question that rarely gets asked:

If individual charity were able to solve the problems of poverty, then why hasn't it done so already?

Seriously, show me one place in the world where individuals doing private charity have ever been able to solve the systemic problems of poverty. You can pick any place you want over the course of global history.

If personal charity ever solved the problems of poverty, we wouldn't even need to talk about it. There is nothing stopping people from doing this right now. Neighbors can help neighbors, churches can help neighborhoods, and if the theory held up, we should have eliminated poverty ages ago.

There have been some great individual efforts over the years. People have bonded together through churches and other groups to do marvelous charitable deeds, such as the hospital networks of Catholic religious sisters or ecumenical disaster relief efforts, to name only a couple in a long line of impressive efforts. Of course, a key phrase here is "bonded together." When you come face to face with poverty and attempt to do something about it, the first thing you may realize is that you just can't do much by yourself. You've got to join your efforts with those of others. First, you may try to involve your family. Then you may solicit the involvement of your church. Eventually, you probably realize that the problem needs all of society pulling together, and you work hard to convince people to utilize the government to achieve this goal.

The history of Christians addressing poverty is stunning indeed. Still, many faith-based groups whose mission it is to alleviate poverty openly support the critical role of the government in helping meet this goal. See Bread for the World, for example. Christians who are working hard to alleviate poverty typically support a strong partnership with the government in this work.

The reason is this: The state is the most effective instrument to provide this kind of service. The government is neither good nor bad, it is simply the best tool for the job. No other organization is big enough or as well-connected. The faith community can compel and convince voters to provide this care, but when we do so, the tool we need to use is the government. Why? Because quite simply: It works.

It is like trying to tunnel through a mountain with toothpicks. You can bring an army of extremely dedicated people, but it would take millions and millions of people and probably just as many years to dig that tunnel using toothpicks. Another option is that somebody could bring in a carton of dynamite, a bulldozer and a team of engineers to blow that tunnel wide open. The government is like the second option--dynamite, bulldozers and experts. There are some things a large body like a government can do that no team of individuals could ever do, no matter how noble or well-intentioned. A large body is often greater than merely the sum of its parts.

It is easy to understand why people are wary of the government. Some of the worst actions in human history have been done of, by and for governments. But on the flip side, any society that has been able to reduce, minimize or come close to eliminating poverty has been a society that has learned to effectively involve the government in this process.

There is another reason why government matters so much: The future of the human race will be based on our ability to cooperate with each other. Community is extremely difficult. It's extremely messy. But it's also essential. God gave us a big planet, but it is not so big that any of us can live in isolation from our neighbors. No matter how hard we try, no matter how strongly we detest it, the fact remains that we are stuck with each other. We share this planet. In light of this, we have a choice: We can either learn to work together or we can fight with each other, but we can't pretend to ignore each other. The government is not the only way that people come together, but it is the one institution that includes ALL members of a society. Eliminating the government from charity efforts eliminates an essential way that people can work together.

This is an especially difficult concept for us in the United States. Many of the people who helped form this country tried to solve their problems by simply moving away from people they had difficulties with. This method of dealing with problems is deeply embedded in the American psyche. When people get on your nerves, you can simply "go west" to get a little peace and quiet, a little piece of your own ground, and live with minimal interactions with neighbors. You don't have to learn to live with difficult people, rather you can just pick the people you want to be with. People first left the problems of Europe behind. When life here got too tense, many continued pioneering westward to get away from everyone. Part of the American Dream is the illusion that you can create and control the bubble you live in. Perhaps this method worked for a couple hundred years until the empty spaces ran out and we were stuck staring eyeball to eyeball with our neighbors, again. Still, the fantasy remains that the individual acting alone is the most advanced and enlightened form of human activity. Yet Christianity has always held that life is about "we" not about "me."

There have been many societies across human history that have provided very little government support to struggling citizens. The result? People lived in desperate poverty. The personal charity efforts of their neighbors did not change that. There is no historical example where a society has removed government sponsored social services and then ended up with individuals taking on the burden doing a better job of helping their fellow neighbors in need. People do help each other out, but rarely to the point of eliminating poverty or making up for what a whole-government effort could do. The only exception I can think of would be very small societies, like the Amish or traditional hunter-gatherer societies. Small societies like that rarely have the wealthy living next to the desperately poor, but that juxtaposition is common in any larger societies.

I suspect that the real reason why some folks are against the government getting involved is because they know that it might actually effect some real changes in power.

So what about forcing people to do charity? I don't get why this is a big deal. If I'm sick and need to go to the hospital, I'm sure glad there's a road I can take to get there. It doesn't matter to me in the least if workers built that road out of charitable love or whether they built that road just because it was what they had to do to get a paycheck, I'm just glad there's a road when I need one. I don't need to know the motivations of each of the highway workers. But I can trust that the decision to build that road in the first place and allocate tax dollars to pay for it was certainly wise and probably charitable, and I'm glad that enough of my neighbors were smart enough and generous enough to make sure that road exists. People had a vision for making society better and part of the vision included building a road so that people could get to the hospital.

The same analogy holds true when it comes to giving a hand-up to people in poverty. If folks need assistance with food, heating bills or medical care, I think we should provide it. What helps my neighbor helps me.

Besides, why are we making a game out of poverty? I would hate for the poor to suffer just as a test to see if other people develop the "right attitude" out of which to help them.

Whenever people are able to make huge gains eliminating poverty, the government is almost always a huge part of that effort. And that is because the future of the human race will be determined on how well we cooperate with each other, and that includes, among other things, the oftentimes messy but always necessary aspect of the government. Individual charity is still important. It is still an extremely high calling. But it is through individual charity that we learn how important it is to involve others in this task.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Ancient Hospitality: A Lost Religious Practice

Ulysses [Odysseus] Conversing With Emaeus
by John Flaxman (1755-1826)

Hospitality to strangers was a very big deal throughout the ancient world. I am not sure if any of us in the modern era have any appreciation for just how important it was. There were no hotels, no GPS systems, few restaurants. Being in a tough spot away from home was a life or death situation!

Hospitality was not only a cultural practice, but it also had serious religious significance.

I just finished listening to an audio book of The Odyssey, the Ancient Greek poem attributed to Homer. It was an appropriate companion on some recent long road trips (this blog is called "The Traveling Ecumenist" for a reason!) It is generally thought to have been written in the 8th century BCE, and it is the second-oldest surviving work in western literature.

The Odyssey is called an "epic" for a good reason--it is a sweeping saga of wartime battles, magical meanderings, courtly drama and intense personal struggles. It is the quintessential tale of a young man who goes off to build his identity by confronting challenges and then faces the equally difficult-struggle to come home again as a wiser, more mature adult. Yet in the midst of so many complex themes, the subject of hospitality makes it mark on nearly every scene.

I'm not even exaggerating: Hospitality is just everywhere in this story. As Odysseus, his son Telemachus and others travel through the ancient world, they are continually treated to lavish feasts, incredible gifts and a warm welcome nearly everywhere they go. In fact, one time Telemachus had to actually sneak away from an exuberant King Nestor just to keep up with a rigorous travel schedule. No good host would have allowed him to leave so quickly without being received properly.

Hospitality wasn't just for royalty. How the poor were treated was also of special importance. The Goddess Athena once turned Odysseus into a beggar so he could case his palace in disguise and test the loyalty of his subjects. While there, an elaborate debate ensued among the crowd. Many taunted the beggar. Others attacked him, urging him to get lost. Many accused the beggar of being lazy or an opportunist, living off of the work of others. Still others begrudgingly gave charity but withheld respect. Those with contrary views asserted that they should treat the beggar kindly, as no one knows what circumstances brought the beggar to this place in life. Still others postulated that the beggar could be a test from the gods.

You can hear the same comments today about the poor that were in full voice 2,800 years ago. Almost daily I hear the same debates rage in regards to homeless beggars and immigrants knocking on the door asking for safe refuge. The one thing that's so different from our modern society was the underlying code of ethics about how to treat the stranger who comes to the door begging. We seem to have lost this.

I was amazed when listening to this story just how similar the views of hospitality were to those found in the Bible. Even though the Ancient Greeks had a very different religious tradition from the Ancient Israelites, they came to similar conclusions. The Greeks were worried that the gods themselves would disguise themselves as beggars just to test their charity. Mistreating beggars--perhaps the most vulnerable members of society--was believed to warrant the gravest consequences from the gods. Stories from the Bible have very similar notions. Consider these passages:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2

This is a reference to Abraham and Sarah's experiences in Genesis 18-1-15. Abraham wasn't just kind to three unexpected guests--he went out of his way to dote on them. These men turned out to be angels. Tradition even suggests that these were the three persons of the Holy Trinity. As a reward for treating strangers kindly, God granted Abraham and Sarah a child. You just never know who the person who knocks on your door may be! And while helping others, you just never know what blessings may come back to you.

It is actually Jesus himself who confirms everyone's suspicions on the matter. In the famous passage Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus as God incarnate comes right out and tells us:  

"‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Jesus actually admits directly what everyone has already known in their hearts.

In so many cultures, people have an intuition that beggars, strangers and the homeless are special representatives from God.

We refer to this as the preferential option for the poor in the Catholic tradition. What this means is:  Yes, Jesus is incarnate into all of humanity, and God loves every one of us. But the "least" should get our preferential attention and treatment, because God is there with them and in them in a special way. A preferential way.

The Ancient Greeks did not know Jesus by name, but they still knew that there was something special about a guest who comes to the door--especially a guest in need who is desperate enough to beg for help. Yes, despite the religious overtones, the Ancient Greeks still struggled, like we do today, over whether or not to assist the stranger. But at least their religious tradition gave strong support to the side of hospitality.

When we see a beggar on the streets, we can choose to see him in glass half-empty or half-full terms. It is within the realm of possibility that the beggar has either the best or worst intentions or something in between. Anything is possible. But what is going to be our assumption? We can choose to either assume that he is attempting to swindle us or whether he is just trying to cope with difficult circumstances. We can also choose to see the presence of God in this person and offer warm hospitality.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Why Are Christians So Easily Blinded?

Are doctors of divinity blind, or are they hypocrites? I suppose some are the one, and some are the other; but if they felt the interest in the poor and the lowly, that they ought to feel, they would not be so easily blinded.

Harriet Jacobs
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Chapter XIII The Church and Slavery

Harriet Ann Jacobs, public domain picture
Harriet Jacobs is describing the disturbing relationship between Christianity and the practice of slavery in the above quote.

The quote can apply to any of us in any situation.

Jacobs hits the nail on the head: It is perfectly understandable that we will fall short of what the Gospel demands of us. But is it really understandable that so many of us fall short so easily?

If the poor and lowly were first on our minds, as the Gospels demand, would we say and do the same things that we currently say and do?

Take the situation with immigrants and refugees today in America. We preach a Gospel of hospitality but practice exclusion on a hairpin trigger. Few of us really know what immigrants and refugees have gone through. Fewer still take the time to investigate. Yes, there may be some rare times when we may have to say "No" and build a wall and exclude. But... why are we so quick to do that? Why is that our first response? On top of that, many Christians get angry if anyone even suggests they consider doing something other than excluding people.

The same holds true for race relations in America. Many in the black community tell us that racism is an ongoing, destructive element in society. Before someone even finishes saying, "Black lives matter," another person will cut them off shouting, "All lives matter!" It's a clear sign the second person doesn't want to hear what the first person is saying. Why are so many people so quick to get angry and turn away? The least we can do is listen to what each other has to say before rushing to any conclusions. After talking to each other, we may not totally agree on every point, but why are people so quick to be defensive before actually listening?

In Jacobs' time, the practice of slavery was in full swing. Today, we can all recognize instantly how evil and awful it was. But as Jacob points out, there were many Christians who found it all too easy to shrug their shoulders and dismiss it. They said things like: "Maybe it's not as bad as it seems," or, "Maybe it's actually a good thing deep down," or, "Well, it's complicated," or some other excuse. Those are the same excuses we hear today about contemporary issues. There was a mountain of evidence screaming that slavery was evil, but folks allowed themselves to be so easily distracted by any perspective or anecdote, no matter how small, that reassured them that slavery might not be so bad after all.

There was plenty of fake news about slavery in the early 1800s. For example, some people investigated the conditions of slavery and said that the slaves seemed happy and prosperous. Many people in the North allowed themselves to be so easily deceived by stories that made no sense and were obviously staged. Likewise, they would hear 99 stories of the horrors of slavery and then one story surfaced where the conditions we not quite so bad, and they allowed that one story to blind them to the 99. People today are deceived by the same things. Many Christians are so quick to believe lies about immigrants, refugees, the African-American community, Native Americans and any other group that raises their voices demanding justice and mercy. One questionable incident may discredit a mountain of evidence on the other side.

When slaves escaped, many people in the North helped re-capture them. They would say a nineteenth-century version of: "What part of 'illegal' don't you understand?" After all, it was against the law for a slave to escape and for someone to assist them. Today, we realize that the entire system of slavery was immoral and we regard the people who gave them sanctuary as heroes. The entire system needed to be changed. Many immigrants today wallow in detention centers and many refugees suffer in camps all because "it's the law."

It is easy for most of us to look back on slavery and instantly recognize the evil it was. But what are the issues today that we are allowing ourselves to be deceived about?  HINT: It is probably when we are unwilling to calmly hear what someone else has to say. Our quick, defensive reaction is usually a sure sign of our own shortcomings and blind spots. It is our duty at those moments to take the time to understand why we are so quick to shout over someone else and block out what they are saying. Why are we resisting what they are saying?

The Gospels instruct us to think first of the poor and lowly. That message is on almost every page of Scripture in one form or another. It's in every parable and sermon of Jesus. We all do a poor job of putting into practice the awesome vision described by Jesus of Nazareth--the Beatitudes and the Greatest Commandment are both mind-blowing and revolutionary. To say we fall short is an understatement. We know that. It's a given. It just goes with the territory of the Gospel.

We also know there are times when we are all also hypocrites. We preach a Gospel that we fail to emulate. This is also somewhat understandable. The Gospels are so bold that it is a foregone conclusion that we will fail putting them into practice in such a broken, fallen world.

But this is no excuse for the fact that each of us can, in fact, do better.

The message of Harriet Jacobs haunts me: Why are we so easily blinded?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Top 5 Demands of Christian Hospitality

Syrian refugees arriving into Greece.
Source: http://tinyurl.com/ha535a5
Discussions about refugees and immigrants almost invariably include people who strongly express the need to protect borders.

Pope Francis has a helpful perspective that hits the nail on the head:

A person who thinks only of building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not a Christian.

The key word here is "only." 

Protecting our borders is important. I can't think of a single Christian denomination that does not value the need to protect borders, big or small. After all, most of us lock our houses and cars. Similar reasoning can apply to the borders of a nation.

However, protecting borders should be one of the last things on our minds as Christians--not the first. The biblical demands of hospitality are pretty strong, especially given so many statements by Jesus himself.

So if protecting borders isn't the only consideration, what else should a Christian do?

1. Welcome.  If someone is a stranger in your land, the least you can do is acknowledge them kindly and be nice to them. You don't know the circumstances that brought them to your land. Even if you do, the Bible would not give you license to be mean to them.

Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. Romans 15:7

2. Compassion and Dialogue.  If someone is at your doorstep begging for entry, you ought to at least ask why. Sit and talk with them. Hear their story. I've found that people who want to uniformly exclude refugees and immigrants are those who have never had a meaningful conversation with them about their circumstances. Their position is based on what they have heard from other sources.

The world "compassion" literally translates as "to suffer with" someone. Being compassionate means you have listened so deeply and are so emotionally invested that it is like you are walking right beside them in their struggles Then and only then are you in any position at all to make a decision that may impact their lives (if ever).

They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat down on them. He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them beside springs of water. Isaiah 49:10.

3. Benefit of the Doubt. No amount of dialogue can ever replace the visceral experience of walking a mile in another's shoes. We still have to try, but it can be a long process to truly understand someone else's situation. I have struggled with this. I have heard people talk about all sorts of issues ranging from addiction to racial discrimination to mental health problems to political views. Sometimes it has taken years before I finally get it and understand their point of view. In the meantime, before we "get it", we can at least give the benefit of the doubt. This means that I may not fully understand someone else's point of view, but I will trust that something has brought them to this place in life and respect that. When in doubt, I will trust their testimony unless I have very strong reason to believe otherwise.

1 Corinthians 13:4-8 is a great guideline here: Be patient and kind. Do not be resentful. Bear a burden for your brother or sister. Trust in them and know there is a deeper reason for everything. This is how we should relate to others, especially when we are in that limbo phase of not truly understanding their situation.

4. Recognizing Rights. Christian churches almost universally affirm that people have the right to migrate to support and protect their families. Most people generally want to stay in their native land and only move when circumstances are extremely dire. Many families are caught in an impossible situation--either respect a border and watch their family suffer or break a law in hopes of saving their family. What would you do in this situation?

The Bible reminds us that we have all benefitted from a warm welcome from others when we ourselves were facing hard times:

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Exodus 22:21.

5. Protecting borders. I've worked in homeless shelters. Most are places of enormous hospitality for people who often find little of that on the streets. However, nearly every shelter has well-established rules for conduct and access. For example, most shelters would not allow someone who comes to the door in a drunken rage wielding a loaded gun. As hard as it may be to refuse entry on a cold night, it may also be wrong to put the whole community at risk just to offer a bed to someone who is actively a threat.

Excluding someone is never a happy circumstance. People will often feel like they have "closed the door on Jesus." Based on Matthew 25, there is a solid biblical reason to feel this way. But a small shelter trying to make the best decision in a world of limitations has to make tough choices.

Excluding someone should never be taken lightly. It is always a very sensitive, delicate matter. The duty of a Christian is to welcome, give the benefit of the doubt, walk in compassion and recognize the rights of others long before putting up a wall. All throughout, the duty is to listen--and then listen some more--and then listen still further. At some point in the process, you may come to an unfortunate place where the only decision you see is to exclude someone, and pray to God you are making the best possible choice. But it should only be the method of last resort. You should be able to easily demonstrate that all else has been tried. 

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Matthew 25:37-40.

Refugees Today

In light of the above criteria, it makes no sense for the US to turn away refugees at this time. Our vetting system is one of the most effective processes of the whole government. There is no evidence that refugees bring with them risks of increased crime or terrorism. They are some of the least dangerous and most productive members of society.

Refugees are in a dire situation. They are literally fleeing for their lives from war and most have generally lost everything. By definition, this is what makes them a refugee in the first place. The risks are minimal and the needs are great. On what grounds can we possibly refuse them from a Christian standpoint?


I hear Christians making impassioned arguments about the need to protect borders. It often seems to be the only consideration they express. I'm left with the eerie feeling that many Christians spend enormous amounts of energy justifying why they should NOT reach out to their brothers and sisters in need. Protecting borders is a sobering, responsible consideration. However, it should be the method of last resort after all else has been reasonably tried.

This crisis which can be measured in numbers and statistics,
we want instead to measure with names, stories, families.
Pope Francis, Homily from a Mass in Mexico

Friday, January 13, 2017

Strangers and Aliens

Deuteronomy 10: 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

From: www.freebibleimages.com

See this article:  Jeff Sessions got it right on immigrants and the Bible. It has been circulating around social media, and it has caused quite a stir. 

The basic argument of James K. Hoffmeier is that "social justice advocates" often employ a simplistic read of the Old Testament when they use it to advocate for amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

"Strangers" and "aliens" were not broad terms referring to just anybody who happens to wander into a foreign land, Hoffmeier argues, but rather people with varying levels of permission to be there.

Hoffmeier writes: "I would argue that if one wants to apply biblical passages ... to our context, green card holders would better correspond. They need protections so as not to be abused and exploited as we have unfortunately seen. Old Testament law simply does not address how people in the U.S. illegally should be treated."

He may be right in the Hebrew language translation, I don't know. I support all efforts to employ good scholarship and make sure we are reading as accurately as possible. But using his own argument, he is wrong on at least two points.

The first: Is he actually suggesting that those without a green card should be abused and exploited? Abuse and exploitation are never appropriate actions, regardless of whether the Old Testament fails to mention them or not. The argument that legal status is the determining factor for protections from abuse and exploitation is morally empty by any standard. People do not void their human rights just because of their legal status. That's why they are called "rights." They don't go away just because they are in an awkward situation.

For example, if a cop pulls you over for speeding, the fact that you broke the law does not mean that it's a free-for-all and the cop can suddenly do whatever he wants to do. Absolutely not. You have a fracture in your relationship with the state that needs to be addressed, but all your other rights remain intact. The only issue between you and the state is whatever specifically relates to your speeding. The cop cannot rape you, take your money or attack you just because of speeding. The same is true for immigration status.

Second point: The main premise of Hoffmeier is that "green card holder" is the closest modern equivalent of the aliens and strangers mentioned in these texts. I would argue that green card holder is not inclusive of all the immigrants in question. Instead of an "alien" being compared to a green card holder, the alien could also be compared to a refugee. Green card holders often have the means to live comfortably and safely in their home country. Some are refugees, some are not. Refugees specifically come because they are fleeing a hostile situation. Refugee is a necessary category (along with green card holder) to describe these sanctioned aliens, because of the next point:

There are two kinds of refugees. The first are those approved and brought over by the State Department. The second are those who should be considered refugees but due to political games are not. Most undocumented immigrants in America meet the moral definition of refugee. They may not be sanctioned by the state, but they are sanctioned by God. Many of them are not "officially" declared by the US government as refugee, but that is a sin on us, not them. They meet the qualifications. Many are fleeing violence, war or life-threatening poverty, much of it brought on by the actions of our own country. They should be welcomed in our land with full rights. The fact that they are not is OUR sin, not theirs.

Hoffmeier used the example of Jacob. Due to a drought, Jacob's family fled to Egypt. They got the permission of the Pharaoh to do this. That's wonderful. However, what would Jacob's family have done if the Pharaoh did not grant this permission and give the equivalent of a "green card"? They would be faced with a tough choiceeither watch their family and flocks die in the drought or escape into Egypt without permission. Every responsible father would do the right thing and break a law instead of watch his family die. You would do it. I would do it. And we would be called heroes, not criminals. This more accurately captures the situation of undocumented immigrants in the USA today. If the Pharaoh (i.e. US government) does not grant permission, the one who commits the sin is NOT the undocumented immigrant trying to feed his familythe one who commits the sin is the one who denies permission.

The Scripture quotes at the top of this post tell us to treat the stranger as we were treated in Egypt.  What happened in Egypt? We were in a desperate situation and needed to escape a drought. The Pharaoh welcomed us. Our job, according to Scripture, is not to differentiate between those who are welcomed legally and those who are notrather, our job is to do the welcoming and grant legal permission to those who need it.

The term green card holder is helpful, but it is not inclusive of all the people and situations that Scripture is describing.

We are to treat people as we were treated in Egypt. How we were treated there? We were welcomed.  Hoffmeier starts his definition after the welcoming had already happened. It seems to me that the decision to do the welcoming is an integral part of the moral decision that Scripture is describing.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

What's on TV Tonight?

A scene depicting an American heartland barn dance
by William Medcalf

I didn't intend to write a series on smart phones and social media. This is a blog about spirituality, religious harmony and related topics, after all. I try to keep on topic. However, given the tumultuous 2016 presidential election, many people have been rethinking how we use these new technologies. Does it serve our faith life? Does it improve our culture and society? Is this really the best way to evangelize? One thing led to another.

I stumbled upon some thoughts that have been sitting with me a long time. 

It's tragically ironic when older folks criticize young people for using smart phones and social media. It was precisely those older folks--the World War II generation and the baby boomers--who gave us the television.

I don't want to get into a battle between the generations, but I can't let this one go.

Absolutely nothing in human history has lulled more people into a lifestyle of blatant passivity than the television. Probably nothing else has eroded the foundational interactions of community itself more than the TV. Smart phones and social media are actually an attempt to re-discover community and reclaim an active role in our own lives. They come with their own problems, for certain, but they are an attempt to recover what our culture has lost. 

Compared with TV, when I surf Facebook I'm actually communicating with other human beings directly. I'm debating and interacting. This includes geographically distant family and friends. I have access to all sorts of independent news and opinion sources. Yes, the rise of "fake news" is a problem, and choosing social media instead of interacting with the people physically adjacent to us is problematic, but the Enquirer was in print and the TV embedded in every western home long before the internet came along.

I found parallel thoughts when reading How Did We Get Into This Mess? by George Monbiot. To paraphrase one of my favorite contemporary authors: The last few generations have had more free time and recreational income than perhaps any other people in human history. Yet, we squander our lives passively watching others live their lives on a flashing box in our living rooms. 

I will challenge Monbiot by saying that watching other humans is nothing new. Humans have been acting out skits, performing theater and sharing story narratives since the tribal days. But at least in those older forms, presenters and audience members had more active roles compared with a TV viewers. The TV is categorically different than tribal kids acting out a skit they made, but it does feed a similar need to interpret and observe human drama as it unfolds.

If you ask people what did human beings do before the invention of the television, most will stare at you blankly. Few people have any idea. It should scare the living daylights out of us that we can't answer this question very easily. The fact that it doesn't scare us should alarm us even more. The rise of the TV is perhaps the most quiet revolution ever but perhaps the most destructive.

Yet, the human race has existed for thousands and thousands of years. The television has only been a mainstay in our culture for less than 75 years, and yet we have completely lost all ability to imagine life without it. We have also lost the ability to function with it, too, as it is a very passive activity that erodes our very functioning--the fact that we don't even know what people did before it is a testament to its destructive influence. 

People played sports. They talked. They make their own fun. They planned events, knew their neighbors and got invested in hobbies. Small towns would organize dances and shows. People sat on porches and chatted with neighbors as they walked by. Families sang together. They played parlor games. Kids probably got into all sorts of mischief. People knew how to be social in a way that we no longer do.

The TV doesn't have to get in the way of this. Families can use the TV as a focal point to gather together in one room and talk, read and play games while the glowing box is playing. But far too often, TV has been a replacement for human interaction rather than a stimulus for it. Like any technology, on the surface, it seems like it's neither good nor evil, it's more about how you use it. But I don't think it's completely innocent, either: The TV can help community, but more often than not, is makes it difficult for that to happen.

Just like smart phones and social media, the TV is not going away anytime soon. I'd love to issue a rallying cry of "blow up your TV!" but I'm far too cynical that this is a realistic scenario to hope for. The TV is probably not going away, so we best learn to live with it. But since this is indeed a blog about Christian hope, let me dig deep and say we must hope against hope, even for things that seem impossible. 

But let's not be so quick to attack the newer technologies that give users a more active role, because TV has probably been rock bottom when it comes to active community interaction. Maybe, just maybe, smart phones and social media represent some of our first steps out of the pit we've been in and not a step further down.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

To Tweet or Not To Tweet?

Opensource.com/Flickr, CC BY-SA

You may be wondering why a blog dedicated to exploring spiritual and religious issues would be spending time talking about social media. This is my second installment on the topic, so far.

The 2016 US Presidential election was fought on a new battlefield:  Social media. A lot of folks are asking ourselves if this was really such a good idea. Should we "get back" to news sources we all share in common with more in-person dialogue in between?

We have more open, more vigorous debates than ever before on social media. But people do a fine job of creating the perfect little echo chambers for themselves. People will cancel, un-friend or un-like pages and posts they disagree with. They are quickly left hearing only what they already believe. If you have a contrary idea, you can spread it all around the world, but you can't get it in front the people on the "other side" of the issue--even if those people literally live next door or work in an adjacent cubicle.

Did social media change the outcome of the election? There's reason to believe that we are simply playing out the hand we were dealt a long time ago. By that perspective, social media didn't radically change the outcome. However, political parties know we are isolated in our personal echo chambers, and they use this to manipulate people. This could be having an impact.

Many of us are feeling the need for a collective pause. Maybe we need to reconsider how we use social media and not lose sight of in-person, local interactions. We might benefit from checks and balances to prevent echo chambers.

I am glad we are asking ourselves these questions.

Invention of Writing

Imagine the controversy that must have erupted when writing itself was invented!

I'm sure there were many young writers heckled, insulted and laughed at for this strange new invention. Why write something down when you can actually go and talk to someone in person? I can imagine the heated debates. Writing must have seemed so subversive, secretive and passive-aggressive when it first appeared. Tribal elders probably wanted people to sit together, look each other in the eye and say what they had to say. This new "writing" invention seemed to betray the very fundamental way that human society operated. 

Today, we all regard writing as a cornerstone of civilization. It's one of the greatest inventions of all time, perhaps second only to language itself. But I imagine there was a tumultuous period of adjustment as writing entered the human experience.

Everything we say about social media can be said about writing--it expands the reach of who we can communicate with, but it also creates enormous distances between people. It bridges distances and creates new ones. Yes, there are differences--major differences. But there are also similarities.

I grew up with my grandparents next door and my cousins at the next house down. Today, those cousins are scattered across several states. Social media allows me to stay in touch with them. Through Facebook life updates, memes, jokes, stories and news article shares, we can have an ongoing role in each other's lives. It is not the same as living next door. We can't just drop in on each other in the afternoon, pull out some lawn chairs, pop open some drinks and talk. On the flip side, we can share in-depth testimonies and views that we wouldn't share at a Sunday picnic. If we are going to live so far apart geographically, then social media helps bridge that gap.

In the final wash, internet communication is probably like any other form of communication--it has positives and downsides. It creates new opportunities and limits others. It's going to require a big shift in how we organize ourselves as a society.  But we also have to admit that it's not going away.  Because of that, it's well worth the time to take a pause and reconsider how we use it and see if there are any adjustments we can make so that it serves our lives better.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Community Died Long Before Smartphones

Baby boomers and older are quick to claim that smartphones and social media are killing off interpersonal interactions. They waste no opportunity to criticize.

Younger generations might say that smart phones and social media are giving us a community we never had.

Vibrant, local communities with lots of interpersonal interaction--always a mainstay in human culture--died in America long before smartphones and social media.
When my mom was growing up, kids played freely in the neighborhood and families sat on front porches and talked. It would take my grandmother all afternoon just to walk a couple blocks to the local store, because she would stop and talk with folks on their porches the whole way there and back.

My parents could "remember a time" when folks lived like that. Gen X and younger have never known that time. My generation has been starved for community and has been working overdrive to rediscover it. Folks are reclaiming walkable urban areas, experimenting with intentional living arrangements and building tiny houses. There are all manner of efforts afoot.

When my grandparents were young, it was customary to spend weekends going to dances with live bands. Today, many young people are locked in the loneliness of their homes watching Dancing with the Stars. This changed long before smart phones and social media.

Television, air conditioning and other technological "advances" have destroyed community. People willingly imprison themselves in their own homes, not talking to (or even knowing) their neighbors, each person engaged in her or his own private form of entertainment. People would rather buy their own books than use public libraries. They would rather build and maintain their own private swimming pool than use a community pool. A home owner will purchase his own lawnmower, even though he'll use it at most one hour each week in the summer. Having anything at all shared in common elicits a response of revulsion from most Americans.
My grandparents were farmers in Ohio. They lived near other farmers. No single family owned all the necessary farming equipment. A group of families shared with each other and had to (gasp!) communicate so that it could be properly scheduled and maintained. Each piece of equipment was needed for only a small window of time each year, so each item could be rotated between them as needed.

I drive a lot through the South. Almost every house is decked out with a ginormous, wide-open porch--some porches have almost as much square footage as the adjoining house itself. Yet, I have never seen a single person actually using any of them. At one time, people depended on porches to survive blisteringly hot summer days and for community interaction. Those porches were abandoned long before smartphones and social media.

I was at a Cracker Barrel restaurant with my family this past summer.  It was a scortchingly hot day.  It was almost unbearable directly under the sun in the parking lot. On the way out, we decided to occupy a row of rocking chairs on the spacious porch. With a gentle breeze, it was quite nice. We could have sat out there all day talking without being the least bit uncomfortable. It's not that A/C hassaved us, it's that we forgot how to survive without it.

You can complain that young kids are constantly attached to their smart phones. But you might be better served asking why their lives are so deprived of human interaction that they have been sucked into the internet so strongly. Drive through most US suburbs, cities and small towns, you won't see kids playing in the yards, families talking on porches or town folk gathering for public entertainment. This is completely antithetical to how humans have always lived. Children grow up desperately lonely and disconnected from others. Along comes the internet and suddenly they can be plugged in to people all over. Can we blame them? Then yes, over time, they lose (or never develop) the skills at interpersonal interaction.
If you never practice interpersonal socializing, then you don't develop the skill. My grandparents on both sides could strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere. Yet, I rarely talk to strangers when I'm out in public. However, when spending significant time with my extended family, I find myself getting into this mode, and it feels good.  It is something that is natural to humans, but it has to be practiced to be maintained. I suspect that people today reach for smartphones and social media to fill a void, and then once there they lose the ability to interact with those around them. It then becomes a downward spiral and we move further and further away from what we most desperately need.

I remember when the power went out for several days after a storm. Folks emerged from their houses and began talking over backyard fences. They shared ideas and helped each other out. Their TVs were out cold and they were hungry for human interaction. The first fledgling attempts at neighborliness were budding, and we pledged to keep it going long into the future. However, when the power came back on, these efforts died out quickly and never returned. This was long before social media and smart phones.
If we are going to reclaim interpersonal community interactions, we have to go back a lot further than smart phones and social media. Instead do what people have long advocated for:  Throw out the TV and other technological "advances" that coax us into being so isolated.  Smartphones and social media addiction is perhaps not the cause of isolation, but perhaps a symptom in response to it.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Holy Silence in the Wake of the US Election

Count me among those who don't know what to say after the recent US presidential election.

Despite my best efforts, I've been consistently unable to put thought and word together on this blog for the past month.

I don't think I'm alone. Participation in the social media platforms I manage has changed dramatically since the election. Drop-offs in likes, comments and overall views has been extraordinary, especially for any post that is even remotely political. Posts that would have predictably gotten hundreds of "likes" a month ago are now getting responses in the single-digits. (By contrast, I shared an article about the Peanuts cartoon and got a tremendous 72 shares, without any marketing effort expended.) It's too early to tell if this reflects a need for rest, a pause out of uncertainty or simply shock. The entire election cycle rocked this nation to the core--even those with diverse political views can probably agree on this.

Activist and pundit websites still seem pretty active, but something has changed for the rest of us. It's like a hush has fallen over the land. A pregnant pause, perhaps, but a pause nonetheless.

I participated in countless discussions online over the course of the election. I've seen articles and internet memes shared of every tone and timbre. I wrote my fair share. It's easy to wonder if all that effort was wasted. One outcome certainly doesn't mean all effort was wasted--those of us who work for social change know that the struggle requires ongoing, consistent effort--but I would be remiss not to wonder if all the internet chatter were more part of the problem than solution. We may need something else.

Maybe a chain of events is simply unfolding, following a predictable trajectory, of something put in motion a long time ago. The state of the union may be the inevitable result of  years of big money in politics, disenfranchisement of the people, a media that is more propaganda than news and a lack of any reliable checks and balances in government. It is like all norms and standards have been chucked out the proverbial window.

History has shown time and again that in prolonged periods of economic distress, people are vulnerable to the lure of an authoritarian demagogue who promises to make everything great again.  As if it were so easy. The alternative of "business as usual" doesn't capture the imagination of the people, either, but the system is all too resistant to substantial change. Like an addict out of control, the system may have to regrettably hit rock before it realizes it has a problem and has the will to do anything about it.

We've all heard the Trump/Clinton/Sanders debates ad nauseam. There's no need to rehash them here. When a system is vulnerable, it doesn't take very long for people to come along to exploit those vulnerabilities. People are often surprised by what they see in Trump and his behavior, because almost daily he makes statements any one of which would predictably end the political career of anyone else in normal times. But these are not normal times. Despite that, a very good case can be made that it's simply an extension--and exaggeration--of what has already been going on for years. The tree which has been nurtured is simply bearing its fruit.

It is dismal--but in some ways reassuring--to realize we may be entering a dark time. But this "dark night of the soul" can be at time of cleansing and renewal, as some writers have pointed out.  That is encouraging, even though "cleansing and renewal" on the stage of world politics usually mean death and destruction for multitudes before the ship rights itself again.  All shall be well.  Eventually. We are reminded of this Holy Good News. But tell that to the people of Aleppo today, if you can find any still alive, to share the news with. Finding hope in the dark night is definitely a long-range proposal.


Perhaps the reason it has been difficult to write is because silence is the only coherent response. By no means do I mean to suggest that silence equals inaction. The central Christian call to love one another requires bold, stark action--eventually. But almost all religious traditions of the world affirm a fundamental need to tune into silence, to take a pause and stop the chatter of the mind. We all instinctively know this.

Silence is the proper stance to take in the early moments of December 25th, when the long-awaited Emmanuel comes to us. That holy night is, after all, a silent night.

It is in that silence that God speaks best. God speaks his Word out of silence and all Creation unfolds. God speaks on that Silent Night when human and divine are birthed together. 

When I drive through the majestic mountains of western North Carolina, I just know in my bones to be quiet. I don't just fall silent--I shut the hell up. It's not a conscious decision. As the mountains get bigger as I journey deeper into the Smokies, it becomes abundantly clear to just be quiet. Whether I'm listening to music or engaged in conversation, there comes a point when it all stops as a matter of course. It doesn't feel like a request as much of a command. The mountains simply demand that kind of respect. Anyone who has ever been in the mountains knows this. If you absolutely must speak, you instinctively know to do it in a hushed whisper.

When confronting unspeakable horrors, like visiting a former Concentration camp, many people find there are no words. In the face of either awesome majesty or incomprehensible tragedy, there is something in us that knows that silence is the only appropriate stance.

When things fall apart, we get a clear message: Something is wrong. Perhaps we ignored the warning signs and best practices or were simply caught off guard. The house was either built with faulty materials or on a foundation of sand. We know this by the simple truth that is no longer stands. We then retreat back to the space where we know everything still makes sense. It's a system reboot to the last point in time when everything was okay. In extreme times, that requires us to go as far back as we can possibly go. That point--the alpha and the omega (or at least as close as we can get to it)--is silence.

Silence is the place of transformation. It is the place of ultimate humility. It is the place of admission that we simply do no have the answers and need to go to the ultimate Source, the Wellspring of all that is Good. We realize we need to listen, and listen deeply, before we dare start speaking again.

I don't despise the human condition. Human chatter is as much a part of the unfolding of Creation as birds singing in nature or the peaceful splatter of a waterfall. But we all know the propensity of humans to fantasize that we are somehow separate or superior to what God has created. In order to grow into the people we are built to be, we have to learn how to set aside this pride--this ego--this idolatry--whatever you want to call it, and find our deeper calling and participation in this harmony. We've got work to do to reclaim this. Christian tradition refers to this as our "fallen" condition.

Leonard Cohen tells us that King David had a "secret chord that pleased the Lord." Musicians will spare no expense of energy searching for it. But what if that secret chord was the music of silence? But whatever it is, it is no small wonder it came from the "baffled King," as no human could truly compose it out of his own genius.

Silence doesn't change the world--at least not at first. I'm reminded of another songSilence is golden, but my eyes still see. In fact, silence actually helps us see better, as we step away from our self-made distractions and face the scariest word of all: Is. Not our fantasy, but what actually is. Reality. That is the risk of silence. That's why we avoid it--I know that's true for me.  But sometimes things happen that force us kicking and screaming to simply shut up. A hush has fallen over the land. Things will happen. Words will be said. But for now, the task is ours to listen and be still and know that God is Lord. And we ought not step out of this silence until we have damn well learned what we need to learn and centered ourselves where we need to be centered.


Another great song that has been going through my mind in writing this post:
Holy Darkness, by Dan Schutte and performed by John Michael Talbot.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Minimum Wage and Christian Hope

Holy Family by Ade Bethune

There is a lot of debate about raising the minimum wage. The fight for $15 movement is going strong and has gained footing in a number of regions in the USA. 

People are debating the merits from both sides.

However, there is one line of reasoning that I have not heard anyone else make, and it is significant. It is probably missed because it is so obvious that it's right in front of our eyes.

Even better, you do not need a degree in economics to understand it.

St. Joseph the Worker, by Ade Bethune
It goes like this:

A lot of people are against raising the minimum wage because they say it will ultimately hurt people and the economy. They claim the wage increase with bring about a corresponding increase in inflation, which would effectively neutralize the value of that additional income. Even worse, critics argue, businesses will also speed up the process of automating their facilities (and thus laying off workers) to avoid the higher wages they would have to pay.

I'm not here to argue about the method of increasing wages. While I would love to see more people earing higher wages, I'm willing to accept that here are better and worse ways of doing this. Fine.

We must be careful not to assume that all attempts of raising wages are going to be a disaster.

If we accept this, then we give in to hopelessness. We would have to assume that most citizens are just going to have to live in poverty. Under this logic, the best anyone can hope for is to not be one of those people. The argument against raising wages is that keeping them low is the only way to preserve some wealth for some people. Raising wages, they argue, will hurt the economy for the rest of us and not help the poor in the end.

If you can't raise wages, then that means that you lose all hope that we can ever overcome widespread poverty. It means that the people who are poor are always going to be poor. It means that success is only available for some of us and that there's nothing we can do about it. It means we live in a world without hope that the earth will ever be as it is in heaven.


This defies all common sense and a basic look at history. We know that there have been societies throughout history where the vast majority of people were deeply impoverished while a few were wealthy. We also know that there have been societies where there was a thriving middle class and poverty was kept to a minimum--many countries in Europe are like that right now.

In fact, if you look back just a generation in the USA, it was once typical for a man to leave high school, enter the workforce and earn enough to support an entire family on one income and expect to live a middle-class lifestyle. That used to be typical in the USA.

If it used to be typical, what is stopping us from going back to that system?

There is no fixed law that says a certain percentage of society must be poor. That percentage changes based on the leadership of the society and the economic approach they use. Some places in the world have more poverty than others. That means a better society is always available. Far too many places have proven that it can be done and done well.

Economists will argue whether it's wise to raise wages too quickly or whether it's best to roll out changes regionally or nationally. I will leave it to the experts to debate the method. But let's all be 100% clear: It is possible to have a society where poverty is kept to a minimum (if not downright eradicated) and the vast majority of people maintain at least a middle-class lifestyle. There are simply too many examples in the world of places that do exactly that.

How we get there may be in question. But we should never doubt that we can get there.

It is incumbent on Christian morality to fight for a living wage for all. If we believe the words of Jesus Himself, we have to believe that not only is it possible but that it is part of our duty as Christians to remake this world in the image of the Kingdom--through God's grace, of course.

Businesses will make every prediction of gloom and doom. We know this. Every time society has worked to improve the lives of its citizens, many in the business community have fought against this claiming, "It'll kill business!" Yet, businesses continued to thrive after those changes were enacted. In fact, the more rights and better wages for workers has usually translated into a better society for all, including the business community. And none of this has to happen by using military force or other violent means (in fact, that rarely (if ever) works). We just have to make sure everyone has the opportunity for a living wage.

This comic below is one of my all-time favorites and pretty much tells the story: